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The Term ‘Illegal Alien’ Is Going Out Of Style

By Esther Yu-Hsi Lee  

"The Term ‘Illegal Alien’ Is Going Out Of Style"

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(Credit: Colorlines)

A Pew research study released this week found that the use of the phrase “illegal alien” has declined in 2013 compared to its usage during other periods of time when immigration-relevant legislation was in the news.

Overall the use of the term “illegal alien” diminished to five percent of all news articles surveyed by Pew in 2013 as compared to 2007 when it accounted for 21 percent of terms used. The alternative term “undocumented immigrant,” one favored by immigration advocates, has increased to 14 percent in 2013. Pew has studied the use of such terms in 1996, 2002, 2007, and 2013– four major periods of American history in which immigration legislation was being considered.

The term “illegal immigrant” remained the primary way to refer to undocumented individuals, in fact 49 percent of the time in 2013, that newspapers describe the general 11 million undocumented immigrant population. Largely a phrase used by conservatives, the “illegal” label has been met with much hostility by immigration advocates, namely because they believe that “no human is illegal.”

For that reason, some publications like the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times, have chosen to completely restrict the use of the phrase “illegal immigrant” by its staffers. Other newspapers including the New York Times have limited the use of the word to describe “someone who enters, lives in or works in the United States without proper legal authorization,” but advises its writers to find “alternatives when appropriate.”

Changing uses of the term suggest that newspapers understand that immigrants do not all fall under one category since some immigrants have “complicated or shifting status, like those brought to the United States as children.” The phrase especially complicates matters since over 365,000 youth immigrants are temporarily lawfully present, so it would be an erroneous label to call them “unauthorized.”

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