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Immigration language redux

Posted at 12:41 PM on December 13, 2006 by Bill Wareham (1 Comments)

A listener emailed reporter Mark Steil today asking about MPR's policy regarding the use of the term "illegal immigrant." (See Mark's story about yesterday's raid at the Swift meatpacking plant in Worthington.)

Here is the language policy MPR News came up with earlier this year following considerable discussion both internally and with folks outside of MPR involved in the ongoing immigration debate:

"Illegal immigrant" and "illegal immigration" remain acceptable terms for stories on immigration issues. "Illegals" is not acceptable. "Undocumented" is only acceptable when there is an actual and specific question about a person's documents; it should not be used as a substitute adjective for "illegal." "Alien" is not acceptable except when referencing specific legal language.

One point of clarification, however - while "illegal immigrant" is acceptable, it is not mandatory if there is an equally good alternative for conveying a person's or group's legal immigration status. For instance, it's fine to say "John Doe crossed the border illegally" or "Jane Doe remained in the U.S. illegally after her temporary visa expired." These types of constructions reflect our desire for active writing and they accurately convey immigration status, yet they avoid the "dehumanizing" aspect critics hear in the "illegal immigrant" label.

The gentleman who emailed Mark later emailed me, saying our policy contains a contradiction because "your station does not refer to employers of immigrant laborers as "illegal employers" or 'Illegal bosses", a language choice that the employers of immigrant laborers, 'illegal' or 'legal' appreciate and benefit from."

I fail to see the contradiction, at least in the case of the Swift plant raid. The immigration agents say they were looking for people in the country illegally who are using illegal documents. Presumably one reason a worker would need such documents would be to satisfy whatever legal obligation a company like Swift is under to verify immigration status.

One might argue that employers in industries that rely on cheap immigrant labor violate the spirit of the law by only doing cursory checks on documentation, well aware that there's a high likelihood that the documents aren't valid. But I don't think such behavior could accurately be labeled illegal.

On the other hand, I'm guessing there are employers who actively violate the law. If you're aware of any, I'd be happy to hear about them. That would make a good news story.


Comments (1)


Mr. Wareham,
You don't refer to employers of immigrants as 'illegal employers' because you respect the right of such employers to make profits from so-called "illegal" labor. There is plenty of evidence of employers who use the threat of calling in INS agents to deal with immigrant workers who try to organize unions. These employers benefit from your calling these workers who produce their profits as "illegal workers".

The designation "illegal" is arbitrary. A Cuban is automatically granted a green card upon arrival on the shores of Florida, a Mexican or Haitian is called "illegal" for doing the same thing. How you cannot see how this charade benefits employers who don't want immigrant workers to organize unions is a mystery to me. A worker is a worker is a worker.

Posted by Stephen Philion | December 14, 2006 9:41 PM