At last night’s presidential debates hosted by Fox News, it was jarring to hear Fox personalities and Republican presidential candidates alike using the derogatory term “illegals” to refer to undocumented immigrants.
Fox and other conservative media outlets have rejected efforts — including Colorlines’ the Drop the I-Word campaign — to stop using terms like “illegal immigrant” and “illegal alien.” Jose Antonio Vargas, a journalist who “came out” as an undocumented immigrant in 2011, started the following year to challenge media outlets’ use of the term “illegal immigrant.” In January, FoxNews.com said its policy is to describe immigrants who are in the U.S. without authorization as “illegal immigrants,” but Fox News Latino reportedly does not use the term.
Last November, Fusion’s Felix Salmon published an overview of the policies various news organizations have adopted. Some, including the Associated Press, no longer use the term “illegal immigrant.” Some, like the New York Times, still do while encouraging reporters to also consider alternatives in a given context. Some find alternatives like “undocumented” or “unauthorized” to be confusing or bureaucratic.
But the sneering shorthand “illegals” is worse and there is a stronger consensus against its use — but not a universal one. In January, the Santa Barbara News-Press generated controversy, including vandalism of the paper’s building, when it used the term “illegals” in a headline. Fox ran a story about the vandalism with screen text declaring “Trouble with Illegals.”
A copyediting blog, commenting on the Santa Barbara controversy, declared it is no longer possible for journalists to “claim that the word illegal [used as a noun] can be neutral or objective.” Even the Wall Street Journal, whose stylebook says “illegal immigrant” is its preferred term, instructs, “Don’t use illegal or illegals as a noun.”
Despite having low expectations for Fox and the Republican candidates, it was striking to hear so many uses of “illegal” or “illegals” as a noun. Scanning through transcripts of the debates, I confirmed that Fox’s Bill Hemmer used the term twice in the also-rans debate, and Chris Wallace used it three times in the top ten debate. The term was also used by Donald Trump and Mike Huckabee, the latter in his sadly memorable formulation about “illegals, prostitutes, pimps, drug dealers, all the people that are freeloading off the system now.”
This week, New Yorker writer Jeffrey Toobin wrote a follow-up piece to an article he published last month about immigration policy. In his new commentary, he reflects on feedback he received in opposition to his use of “illegal immigrant.” He says he will no longer use the term because it has become so widely regarded as pejorative.
Toobin says it is “clearly wrong” to use the term as a noun — to call someone “an illegal.” Former New York Times editor and columnist Bill Keller came to the same conclusion in late 2011, with help from readers and colleagues, after a column in which he had used “illegals” as shorthand for “illegal immigrants.”
Of course, given the state of the Republican Party on immigration, there were also plenty of uses of the term “amnesty” by candidates, including Jeb Bush making sure to qualify his support for a path to legal status for people now in the country — “not amnesty” — and Ted Cruz, who slammed the other candidates for having supported “amnesty.” Bobby Jindal had another of the evening’s most memorable lines, declaring “immigration without assimilation is an invasion.”