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Do Terms Become Offensive Just Because They're Old?

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Define American/AP via NPR

Jose Antonio Vargas

PHOENIX -- Recently, journalist, activist, and undocumented immigrant Jose Antonio Vargas has expanded his Define American project to track and attempt to influence the language used by news organizations. Vargas objects to organizations -- like The New York Times and the Associated Press -- whose stylebooks prescribe the use of the term "illegal immigrant." He wants the media to use "undocumented" or "unauthorized" immigrant. There are a number of reasons that the term "illegal immigrant" concerns Vargas.

He think it’s offensive to refer to a person as "illegal" because of their actions, and says it can be traumatic to someone to be referred to as such; an argument I understand, but I think Vargas likely overstates his case a bit. Would not the multifarious other challenges facing someone in the United States illegally be a bit more impactful than how some media outlet refers to them?

Vargas also says "illegal" is an inaccurate term because it's a civil offense, not a criminal one. (But isn't it still breaking the law?)

And, he thinks the term illegal immigrant doesn't acknowledge the complexity of the immigration system, which I think is true -- but with a system so complex, how can we find a phrase that accurately does? Part of what the media do is to boil things down to manageable concepts. If every story involving illegal immigration or undocumented immigrants included a diatribe explaining the convoluted nature of immigration law and policy to the uninitiated, the audience would very quickly move on.

Plus, while "illegal immigrant" might overlook the complexity, one can argue that "undocumented" does, too. Many immigrants who came or were brought here illegally (or came legally but overstayed their visa) DO have some documents, and with the new Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, eligible so-called DREAMers will get two-year work permits and (in some states) driver's licenses or IDs.

The issue of terminology, though hardly new, has seen a bump in coverage of late. The New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan's blog arguing against banning "illegal immigrant" from the Gray Lady's pages is a good read. Also worth checking out: Vargas gave an interesting (and sometimes contentious) interview to On the Media's Bob Garfield.

Garfield raises a salient point: descriptive terms have a tendency to become offensive or stigmatizing as the years wear on, a phenomenon I find curious. Negro simply used to be a way to describe a person. Then black became the preferred term. And now, some use African-American. Perhaps African-American will one day become the only acceptable term. But why? Is this a non-offensive word becoming derogatory due to the passage of time, or creeping political correctness? The Associated Press Stylebook still recommends the term black. And it's generally what I use, for two reasons. One, not every person who is black is also African-American. A British person of Jamaican descent is neither African nor American. Two, I grew up in a neighborhood with a large black population, with black neighbors and classmates and friends, and rarely did I hear a black person say "African-American." I don't think black is offensive or derogatory, I think it's a simple descriptor -- that should be used when contextually necessary.

Now, I don't think it's necessarily true that illegal immigrant is a term that has become offensive by virtue of its outdated-ness. It is used widely in a straightforward, non-derogatory manner by all sorts of people. But it is also used by people who have strong, negative, and to some, offensive feelings and attitudes toward migrants who are not in the U.S. legally. Personally, I use "illegal immigration," and "undocumented" or "unauthorized immigrant" ... or, I skip the morass altogether and simply write that a person "immigrated to the U.S. illegally."

However, when used in a respectful way, I don’t object to "illegal immigrant." I used to use it myself, but the guidance of a former boss has stuck with me for some time now: " Elie Wiesel said, 'No human being is illegal.'"

Nick Blumberg was a senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2010 to 2014.