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In Choice of Immigration Terms, Some Say Focus on the Act, Not the Actor

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster: what to call people who are in the United States without following immigration laws.

RS: Sometimes they are called "undocumented immigrants" or "undocumented workers" or "illegal aliens." The most common term by far, though, at least as reflected in the news media, is "illegal immigrants." Yet in the debate over immigration policy, linguist Otto Santa Ana at the University of California, Los Angeles, sees it as a biased political term.

AA: Which may help explain why Professor Santa Ana has found a small increase since 2004 in the use of more-neutral terms in newspapers. He traces this to a speech by President Bush in January of 2004 during his re-election campaign.

OTTO SANTA ANA: "I believe that he opened up and made legitimate, for once, the characterization of immigrants as family members, as people, as God-fearing, hard-working individuals trying to make a living. Until that time no one with the president's power ever referred to immigrants as people.

"And so although that is understood, it is articulated each and every time that we say 'immigrants without papers,' 'people who are working here without legal documents' or other sorts of circumlocutions, to not focus the illegality on the immigrant.

"And, in fact, in Congress right now, what the senators and representatives are discussing is the official status of those people. So by using the term 'illegal immigrant' solely, what the journalists do is articulate a partisan perspective."

RS: In fact, Professor Santa Ana calls the term illegal immigrant a "vigilante term."

OTTO SANTA ANA: "You know, for one thing news editors already exclude the notion of 'illegal' as a noun. In the early '90s, people were very comfortable with saying 'Oh, those illegals.' But that was already understood to be pejorative. In a very negative way, it characterized people as primarily criminals. But they have broken a civil law that's equivalent in some sense -- in very many senses -- to jaywalking, but we don't call jaywalkers 'illegal pedestrians.'"

AA: "You're talking about the act of being within the United States ... "

OTTO SANTA ANA: "Is currently a civil infraction of the law. It is technically illegal. But the term illegal immigrant -- if you say the people who are here without legal papers, that's a more appropriate characterization."

RS: "So what I'm hearing you say is that since 2004 you're seeing in the media other words next to immigrant: undocumented, without papers ... "


RS: " ... without legal papers."

OTTO SANTA ANA: "Exactly."

RS: "And so those phrases are ... "

OTTO SANTA ANA: "They provide an alternative way of viewing the immigrants. We'd never say, for example, that the people who are hiring immigrants who don't have papers 'criminal bosses' or 'illicit businesses. If we did, then one could argue that illegal immigrant is perfectly neutral.

"But we are not characterizing, we are not focusing on the characterization of the status of the immigrant in the totality. We're focusing on that individual and calling that person a criminal up front."

RS: "Among themselves, what do immigrants call their situation?"

OTTO SANTA ANA: "Well, they use all sorts of terms. They will say 'indocumentado' ... "

RS: "Undocumented."

OTTO SANTA ANA: "They will say 'illegal.'"

RS: "Illegal. They'll say illegal?"

OTTO SANTA ANA: "Yes, yes. They'll also say 'sin papel,' without papers, and all sorts of other terminology. The range -- it's not like a standard term that's being used, but what I want to focus our attention on is journalistic language."

AA: "What about on the macro level? What would -- is there an alternative to the term illegal immigration? Or is that OK to use that term, do you think? I mean, if you were a news editor or a headline writer and you had to use the term, like to put in a headline, what term would you use?"

OTTO SANTA ANA: "I'd avoid any adjective."

AA: "You'd just refer to immigration."

OTTO SANTA ANA: "Immigration."

RS: Linguist Otto Santa Ana is an associate professor in the Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies at UCLA and author of several books. And that's Wordmaster for this week. Our e-mail address is

RS: And you can read and listen to all our segments at With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.