Controversy is brewing in a central California city over the use of the term “illegal” when identifying immigrants without papers, sparking a temporary boycott of a local newspaper that uses the term and a coming round of community forums on the issue.
The controversy began last week when the Fresno Bee newspaper began a seven-day series, “In Denial,” which explores the contradictions in attitudes and policies over “illegal” immigration. “We’re unhappy about illegal immigrants. So why do we make it so easy for them to live and work here?” the series’ website asks readers.
Fresno is located approximately 200 miles north of Los Angeles. Known for its agricultural production, the county’s 500,000 residents are mostly white and Latino.
While the series presented different opinions on immigration and pointed fingers at both employers and the federal government for the current state of immigration affairs, it also presented undocumented immigrants as financial burdens to state and local governments.
But the real controversy is over the newspaper’s use of the word “illegal.”
The Bee uses the term “illegal immigrants.” The paper, like many other news organizations, follows recommendations from the Associated Press Stylebook to identify the most neutral and accurate terms for reporting. But in fact, many journalists, including the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, stay away from the word “illegal”—particularly as a noun, which they note is grammatically incorrect and criminalizes the person, not the act.
Michael Medrano, an English professor at Fresno City College, started a Facebook group that urged people to boycott the paper during the weeklong series. “HUMAN BEINGS ARE NOT ILLEGAL. Being called such is a violation of their human rights,” Medrano wrote on Facebook.
Betsy Lumbye, executive editor and senior vice president of the Bee, responded to Medrano’s boycott. “Unfortunately, there is no perfect term. We think we’ve chosen the best option, but recognize that others disagree for various reasons. We do hope people will read the entire series and discuss all the issues presented,” Lumbye said in an interview published in the Bee.
In coming months Medrano and his supporters will reach out to Fresno Bee reporters and invite them to a community forum with the participation of local artists, organizations and community members to have a discussion about the word “illegals” and related terms.
This fall ColorLines and our publisher, the Applied Research Center, launched the Drop the I-Word campaign, which is dedicated to eradicating use of the word “illegals” in everyday use and in media. The campaign urges everyone to sign a pledge not to use the word and offers a toolkit for journalists and organizations that includes a sample style-guide entry on immigration; the style entry is available for other news outlets to reference or adopt. Here’s a snippet:
Do not use the terms alien, illegal immigrant, illegal worker or related terms except in quoted matter; the terms are pejorative, incorrect and biased. Never use the shorthand “illegals” as a noun. Use accurate and nuanced descriptors specific to the stories of the people you are writing about. Preferred terms include: Immigrant (not foreigner), Undocumented immigrant, Immigrant without papers, Immigrant seeking status, Unauthorized immigrant. [The complete entry is available at the end of this story.]
Drop the I-Word campaign coordinator Mónica Novoa notes, “More and more people across the country, immigrant and non-immigrant are fed up with seeing the slur ‘illegals’ to describe their family, friends and neighbors. They are calling the media out on it, whether it’s writing letters, calling editors or just keeping track of who’s using the term. More than ever, people see that it is a racist and dehumanizing word used to justify policy that is inhumane and completely out of sync with our shared values.”