Can A Human Be Illegal?


A month ago the Associated Press and USA Today announced they would no longer use the term “illegal immigrant” except as part of a direct quote or in relation to the action, illegal immigration. In Australia, the use of this terminology is a hot issue both politically and for the media. The Press Council’s standards of practice in relation to the term state that:

“The legal status of people who have entered Australia by boat without a visa is complex and potentially confusing. Their entry is not legally authorised but is not a criminal offence… Depending on the specific context, therefore, terms such as "illegal immigrants" or "illegals" may constitute a breach of the Council’s Standards of Practice on these grounds.”

However the Press Council’s directive speaks only to coverage of those arriving by boat (as seeking asylum is not illegal), and the term continues to be used to describe undocumented immigrants in Australian news reporting. Last week The New York Times announced changes to its policy on the use of the term. What’s interesting about The New York Times’ style change is that it doesn’t really regulate the term’s use at all:

“Illegal immigrant may be used to describe someone who enters, lives in or works in the United States without proper legal authorisation. But be aware that in the debate over immigration, some people view it as loaded or offensive. Without taking sides or resorting to euphemism, consider alternatives when appropriate…”  

According to the editor, Philip B. Corbett, there are issues with some of the possible alternatives:

“Unauthorised is also an acceptable description, though it has a bureaucratic tone. Undocumented is the term preferred by many immigrants and their advocates, but it has a flavor of euphemism and should be used with caution outside quotations.”

But is “undocumented immigrant” really a euphemism? When you consider the fact that an individual human being cannot be illegal in and of themselves, wouldn’t it seem that describing them as undocumented is a more appropriate term? Indeed, the term “illegal immigrant” has been described as dehumanising by immigration-rights advocates because it characterises a human being (rather than an action) as illegal.

So why then does The New York Times say that the phrase “undocumented immigrant” “should be used with caution outside quotations”?  (Suggesting that the phrase “undocumented immigrant” requires as much caution as “illegal immigrant”) Well, it seems the reason is that the phrase “undocumented immigrant” is considered to be “taking sides” – the side of the “immigrants and their advocates” – and is therefore perceived as biased. It is difficult to see how describing someone as “undocumented” could be as one-sided as describing them as “illegal”. It seems that because immigration-rights advocates are viewed as having an agenda, and they use this phrase, the phrase itself becomes understood as biased.

This issue of how bias is interpreted by journalists has arisen in other important areas. For example, research on coverage of violence against women has found that journalists tend to view advocates as biased sources rather than as experts. It appears that there is some reluctance to use these sources in Australia too. VicHealth research found that only 6 per cent of (1349) articles covering instances of violence against women use a violence against women prevention advocate/expert/social worker as a source.

In a similar vein, research in the US has also found that attempts to remain impartial and balanced in the reporting of global warming has led to the over-reporting of climate change skeptics (who are at the margins of scientific debate on the issue). This results in the misrepresentation of the scientific grounding of anthropogenic global warming, its impacts, and need for action.

It seems that ideas of bias can themselves be biased, and therefore need to be questioned. In terms of the immigration debate, it’s easy to become accustomed to terms like “illegal immigrant” or “boat person” when used repeatedly in the media and by influential, heavily quoted political leaders.  

Tony Abbott, for example, recently claimed that 639 “illegal boats” had arrived in Australia since the Labor party took over. Clearly, his perspective is not an objective or unbiased one, but one which carries its own political agenda. The language used in these debates has an enormous impact on those being spoken about, and affects the tone of the public conversation. When it comes to reporting this issue, reluctance to consider an alternative to the term “illegal immigrant” means supporting a particular view – a political perspective which benefits from characterising certain human beings (rather than their actions) as “illegal”.  

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