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From the newsroom: We're changing the way we talk about immigrants



In September, I asked you to weigh in on whether or not the Arizona Daily Wildcat should adapt its style manual to include the term “undocumented” or “illegal immigrant.” On Dec. 2, the Arizona Daily Wildcat Standards and Practices Committee agreed to use the term “undocumented.”

We easily could have ignored the issue without making a decision. We haven’t had a preferred style in the past and we could have continued to go without.

However, because of Arizona’s proximity to the border and how frequently border security issues come up, even in higher education, it seemed important for the Wildcat to have a set style when it came to this term.

At the beginning of November, Ruben Navarrette, a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group, wrote that groups pushing for the word “undocumented” are trying to “shame the media” into political correctness.

The Wildcat staff explored this idea, but agreed that using “undocumented” isn’t about trying to talk around the issue or dress it up as something it isn’t. Using “undocumented” is about avoiding characterizing someone’s entire personhood by one civil offense.

Navarrette wrote that “the proposed change is, for the most part, about being politically correct. And this is not a good spot from which to practice journalism. My profession isn’t about making folks comfortable. That’s public relations.”

He’s right that journalism isn’t about making people comfortable. However, it is about telling stories in the best way possible.

At the Wildcat, we don’t believe using the term “illegal immigrant” tells the most holistic story.

Simply saying that everyone is getting their undies in a bunch because they are trying to please everyone by being “PC” is a cheap cop-out to avoid a conversation about the importance of language and its very real impact on people.

While “undocumented” may not cut to the chase, it doesn’t paint a false picture either. You wouldn’t call someone who was evicted for not paying rent an illegal renter or someone who double parked an illegal driver.

Navarrette wrote that “the idea is to advance the argument that illegal immigration isn’t really a crime, just an example of desperate people chasing opportunity to survive.”

But “illegal immigrant” falsely implies that everyone who is in the country illegally is a criminal. Many of the people who are here illegally are here not because they broke the law, but because they were brought here at a young age. As a student newspaper, that situation undoubtedly rings true for some readers.

Navarrette’s argument that the debate “is a squabble among elites” only serves to further prove that using the term “illegal immigrant” stereotypes an individual.

“Ask an illegal immigrant if he cares what he’s called or whether he is more preoccupied with his struggle to provide for his family, avoid deportation and ensure that his children get legalized, and you’ll see that changing the language of the debate doesn’t even register,” Navarrette wrote.

It appears that Navarrette assumes that if you are undocumented, your entire life is about being in the country illegally. This simply isn’t true. The idea that the importance of language wouldn’t register with people is just offensive.

We know from past Wildcat articles that there are students here on campus who are undocumented. They are doing more than what Navarrette describes and they are certainly capable of understanding simple terminology.

At the Wildcat, we’ve had the courage to debate the issue. We’ve made our decision not because we’ve caved to bullies, but because we’ve taken the time to talk about the issue from different angles.

I’d like to encourage other student newsrooms to do the same. Although Jose Antonio Vargas went after the big guys when he called for the Associated Press and the New York Times to shirk the term “illegal immigrant,” it’s on college campuses where you will find many of the people of whom the term most inaccurately describes.

— Bethany Barnes is the managing editor and readers’ representative for the Daily Wildcat. She can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu or on Twitter via @BetsBarnes .


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