AAJA Urges Newsrooms to Stop Using 'Illegal' to Describe Certain Immigrants


Immigration continues to be an incendiary political topic, about which the language used in news coverage often serves to only further inflame.

We at the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) call on all newrooms to stop using the term “illegal immigrant” as immigration reform efforts intensify.

The fact is, "illegal immigrant" is a pejorative term that carries racial overtones best avoided by newsrooms. Newsrooms that continue to use the phrase are no longer neutral on the issue but are adopting language favored by one side of the debate.

We believe it is time that newsrooms reclaim their duty of neutrality, particularly on such a partisan issue.

Earlier this year, we applauded the Associated Press and other news organizations for revamping their style on the topic. AP said its reporters and editors would refrain from using "illegal" to label or describe a certain group of immigrants, opting instead to use appropriate language to describe action and behavior. We urged other newsrooms to follow suit, and we continue to make that call.

This is not just a matter of style. AAJA considers “illegal immigrant” an offensive descriptor that should no longer be used — much as outdated labels should never be used to describe people of color.

Asian immigrants have long been victims of xenophobia, and the language that some newsrooms use only fuels animosity toward many immigrants, whether they are in this country illegally or not.

Although much of the current debate has highlighted migrants from Mexico, some people might be surprised that many more immigrants who work or live in the United States illegally are from elsewhere. In fact, the Department of Homeland Security estimates that more than one in 10 of the estimated 11 million immigrants who aren't authorized to live in the United States are of Asian descent. And about 300,000 come from Europe.

As journalists, we need to be mindful of using respectful language — not out of political correctness, but as a moral obligation to treat the people we cover with fairness and the dignity they deserve.

As the San Francisco Chronicle suggests in its style guide, it seems especially unfair to use “illegal” to brand children brought into this country by their parents.

The website Fusion compiled a list of news organizations that have banned the use of the phrase — including AP, Politico, the Los Angeles Times, NBC, ABC and NPR — while other newsroom have no edicts against its use.

We strongly urge all newsrooms to stop using the phrase. There are alternatives — such as using “undocumented” or “unauthorized” — that may be more accurate and more neutral.

Of course, we’d rather have reporters and editors take the space or time to describe the circumstances of a person’s immigration status.

As always, AAJA is available to engage in continued dialogue to foster fair and accurate coverage of our communities.


Paul Cheung, AAJA President
Bobby Caina Calvan, MediaWatch Cochair