Special Report's Bret Baier Uses Loaded Term "Illegals"


Fox News' Bret Baier, using the word "illegals" to describe undocumented immigrants in the United States, said that a U.S. Supreme Court decision would have the effect of "penalizing businesses for hiring illegals." However, prominent media outlets and journalists' associations have denounced the use of the term "illegals," noting that it "skew[s] the public debate on immigration issues."

Baier Uses Term "Illegals" In Special Report Segment About Recent Supreme Court Decision

Baier: "Law Penaliz[es] Businesses For Hiring Illegals." From the May 26th episode of Special Report:

BAIER: [T]he U.S. Supreme Court has upheld Arizona's law, penalizing businesses for hiring illegals. The vote was 5-3 with one abstention. The justices rejected arguments that the states have no role in immigration matters, which could open the door to other challenges. [Fox News, Special Report with Bret Baier, 5/26/2011]

AP Style Book Explicitly Instructs Journalists Not To Use "Illegal Or Illegals"

Associated Press Style Book: "Do Not Use The Shortened Term An Illegal Or Illegals." In its definition of "illegal immigrant," the AP Style Book specifically instructs readers not to shorten the phrase to exclude the word "immigrant." From their official definition of the term "illegal immigrant":

Used to describe someone who has entered the country illegally or who resides in the country illegally. It is the preferred term, not illegal alien or undocumented worker. Do not use the shortened term an illegal or illegals. [AP Style Book, accessed 5/26/2011]

Journalists Have Called On Media To Avoid Use Of Pejorative Term "Illegals," Which Can "Skew Public Debate"

WAPO: "Sometimes The Terms Used In Describing An Issue Are So Powerful They Can Affect The ... Debate." In a column headlined "Immigration language wars," then-Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander wrote that the Post "and others prohibit using 'illegal' as a noun ('he's an illegal')." From Alexander's column:

Discussion was renewed recently when Leo E. Laurence, a San Diego journalist and member of the diversity committee of the Society of Professional Journalists, wrote a column for the organization's magazine urging "undocumented" rather than "illegal."

"Simply put, only a judge, not a journalist, can say that someone is an 'illegal,'" he wrote. Laurence, who was offering a personal view that SPJ has not endorsed, soon ended up in a spirited on-air disagreement with Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly, who suggested that refusing to use the term "illegal" is "political correctness gone mad." The exchange sparked robust debate in the blogosphere.

Among journalists, Laurence is not alone in his view.

"We prefer 'undocumented immigrant,' " said Michele Salcedo, president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. She said that many people enter the United States legally documented but "for one reason or another they overstay their visa limit and become 'undocumented,' as it were." The term "undocumented" is "more inclusive and accurate," said Salcedo, an editor in the Washington bureau of the Associated Press.

She also agreed with Laurence that calling someone "illegal" is a judgment that courts, not journalists, should make. "In this country, if you are accused of a crime, whether it's a misdemeanor or a felony, you're entitled to your day in court," she said.

Donald M. Kerwin Jr., a vice president at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, said "illegal immigrant" is semantically wrong. While it is proper to say someone broke the law, he said, "you can't call them an 'illegal' person."


But any conversation about accuracy is worth having. And this is not just about semantics. Sometimes the terms used in describing an issue are so powerful they can affect the course of the debate, especially when selected by journalists with as much influence as those at The Post. [The Washington Post, 1/9/11]

National Association Of Hispanic Journalists Called For News Media To Stop Use Of "Illegals" As A Noun. In a March 2006 press release, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ), a "2,300-member organization of reporters, editors and other journalists," stated that it was "particularly troubled with the growing trend of the news media to use the word 'illegals' as a noun, shorthand for 'illegal aliens,' " adding: "Using the word in this way is grammatically incorrect and crosses the line by criminalizing the person, not the action they are purported to have committed":

NAHJ is concerned with the increasing use of pejorative terms to describe the estimated 11 million undocumented people living in the United States. NAHJ is particularly troubled with the growing trend of the news media to use the word "illegals" as a noun, shorthand for "illegal aliens". Using the word in this way is grammatically incorrect and crosses the line by criminalizing the person, not the action they are purported to have committed. NAHJ calls on the media to never use "illegals" in headlines.

Shortening the term in this way also stereotypes undocumented people who are in the United States as having committed a crime. Under current U.S. immigration law, being an undocumented immigrant is not a crime, it is a civil violation. Furthermore, an estimated 40 percent of all undocumented people living in the U.S. are visa overstayers, meaning they did not illegally cross the U.S. border. [National Association Of Hispanic Journalists, 3/06]

Asian American Journalists Association: References To "Illegals" Can "Heighten Xenophobia, Skew Public Debate." The Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) stated in a press release that AAJA "fully supports the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) in calling on the news media to use caution with terminology when referring to undocumented immigrants, workers and laborers." AAJA further stated:

Any reference to "illegals" or "illegal aliens" can heighten xenophobia, skew public debate on immigration issues, and put the lives and well-being of all non-U.S. citizens (undocumented and documented) in this country at risk by suggesting they are criminals and do not belong in the U.S.

Millions of Asian Americans are directly and indirectly affected by the current immigration debate and AAJA urges the news media not to cast a wide net -- through insensitive labels -- that would dehumanize an entire sector of our society. [Asian American Journalists Association, 3/29/06]

National Association Of Black Journalists: We Need To Make Sure Words "Are Not Loaded." The National Association of Black Journalists stated in a press release that it supports the "plea that newspapers, television and radio outlets avoid using the term illegal aliens in the context of the current debate, as it is inaccurate and susceptible to misinterpretation." NABJ added:

The words we use can in fact frame the debate, said NABJ President Bryan Monroe, assistant vice president for news at Knight Ridder, and we all need to make sure those words are not loaded with baggage and off-the-mark. Language does matter. If we can't be accurate, were not doing our jobs. [National Association Of Black Journalists, 2006, via Media Matters]

New York Times' Lawrence Downes: The Word "Illegal" "Pollutes The Debate. It Blocks Solutions." Downes wrote on October 28, 2007, that "America has a big problem with illegal immigration, but a big part of it stems from the word 'illegal.' It pollutes the debate. It blocks solutions." Downes further wrote:

Since the word modifies not the crime but the whole person, it goes too far. It spreads, like a stain that cannot wash out. It leaves its target diminished as a human, a lifetime member of a presumptive criminal class. People are often surprised to learn that illegal immigrants have rights. Really? Constitutional rights? But aren't they illegal? Of course they have rights: they have the presumption of innocence and the civil liberties that the Constitution wisely bestows on all people, not just citizens.


Meanwhile, out on the edges of the debate -- edges that are coming closer to the mainstream every day - bigots pour all their loathing of Spanish-speaking people into the word. Rant about "illegals" - call them congenital criminals, lepers, thieves, unclean -- and people will nod and applaud. They will send money to your Web site and heed your calls to deluge lawmakers with phone calls and faxes. Your TV ratings will go way up.

This is not only ugly, it is counterproductive, paralyzing any effort toward immigration reform. Comprehensive legislation in Congress and sensible policies at the state and local level have all been stymied and will be forever, as long as anything positive can be branded as "amnesty for illegals." [New York Times, 10/28/2007]

Geoffrey Nunberg: "[T]here Are Disparaging Connotations To The Negative Prefix In Illegal." Linguist Geoffrey Nunberg stated in an April 11, 2006, commentary for NPR's Fresh Air:

Nowadays, those connotations have led the majority of the mainstream media to steer clear of the word aliens -- "illegal immigrants" tends to be the phrase of choice. But illegal has something more than a technical meaning, too. True, dictionaries define the word simply as "not according to law." But there are disparaging connotations to the negative prefix in illegal, which is actually just a variant of the prefix in-. Inhuman doesn't mean the same thing as "not human," and you don't become irreligious simply by not going to church. And you hear the same negative tone in words like insincere,inflexible, and illegitimate. So it isn't surprising that we reserve illegal for conveying strong disapproval. We may talk about illegal drugs, but we don't describe the Porsche 959 as an illegal car, even though it can't legally be driven in the US.

Then too, we don't usually describe law-breakers as being illegal in themselves. Jack Abramoff may have done illegal lobbying, but nobody has called him an illegal lobbyist. And whatever laws Bernie Ebbers and Martha Stewart may have broken, they weren't illegal CEO's.

It's only your immigration status that can qualify you as being an illegal person, or that can earn you the honor of being "an illegal" all by itself. That use of illegal as a noun actually goes back a long ways. The British coined it in the 1930's to describe Jews who entered Palestine without official permission, and it has been used ever since as a way of reducing individuals to their infractions. [NPR'sFresh Air, 4/11/2006]

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