Since writing an article called "My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant" in the New York Times Magazine last year, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas has been trying to foster conversation about immigration issues. In a speech last week at the Online News Association conference, he announced his plan to track and hopefully influence news organizations away from using the term "illegal" to describe immigrants. Bob asks Vargas why he feels this change in nomenclature is important.
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BOB GARFIELD: Last year, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas wrote an essay in the New York Times called “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant,” detailing the years he’d hidden his immigration status from his employers, friends and just about everyone else in his life. In the years since, Vargas founded a project called “Define American,” meant to foster discussion about immigration issues. Last week Vargas announced a new facet of the “Define American” project, an initiative to track and influence news organizations that use the term “illegal alien” or “illegal immigrant,” as opposed to his preferred phrasing, “undocumented immigrant.”
JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: My beef, such as it is, with the term “illegal immigrant” and “illegal alien” is the fact that they’re inaccurate and imprecise. To be in this country without papers is actually a civil offense, not a criminal one. A Republican strategist named Frank Luntz, back in 2005, actually wrote a memo specifically saying that people like me should be called illegal aliens and illegal immigrants to further criminalize people like me. So how can journalists, who are supposed to be neutral, take something off the pages of somebody like Frank Luntz? The other question here is that about 50% of the people who are in America, quote, unquote, “illegally” came to America legally; they overstayed their visa. And so, saying that everybody’s, quote, unquote, “illegal” actually doesn’t acknowledge the complexity of the immigration system.
BOB GARFIELD: Obviously, language can be loaded. Frank Luntz, the Republican strategist you described, has made a living exploiting loaded terms. But it’s also true that the efforts to de-stigmatize via word play, it’s sort of a slippery slope, away from the very precision you’re talking about, right? I mean, there was a time we called people were developmentally disabled “retarded” but that became stigmatized and, you know, then they were “mentally handicapped.” But oh no, it’s not a handicap. Then they were “differently abled.” And at some point you lose any idea of – what we’re actually talking about now.
JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: Well, I mean, again, we’re not talking about word play. When I came out, so to speak, in the New York Times Magazine last summer, I could have issued this challenge then. But frankly, I don’t think culturally we were prepared. I think the biggest disruption of the immigrant rights movement in the past two to three years have been because of people who have, quote, unquote, “come out.” And why are we coming out about our immigration status? To be seen as full human beings.
The fact that the language is used as such, that I’m this illegal alien, as if I just landed there from Mars, frames the conversation in already such – this pejorative way. Can you think of any other instance that we refer to a group of people as “illegal” in this country? We don’t call it “illegal driving,” we call it “drunk driving,” right?
BOB GARFIELD: But it’s “illegal parking” and, you know, nobody has ever quibbled with that and suggested “unstatutorial parking” or something like that.
JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: Actions are illegal, not people. Can you imagine like hearing this word “illegal” [LAUGHS] and knowing that it refers to you, what that does to somebody?
BOB GARFIELD: I understand but I have to ask this: I’m a big fan of calling things by their name, right?
JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: Oh yeah, of course.
BOB GARFIELD: And in this case, while it may not be criminal to be living here outside the law, it is nonetheless against the law; it’s still illegal. But really, I think, Jose, the main question is, if you come up with another choice, isn’t it inevitable that whatever term you embrace will itself, in time, become as loaded and pejorative as the word it replaced?
JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: I was in Alabama last year for about a week. I’m actually going back again next month. And what I found really interesting was talking to people like outside of Walmart or something, and how people moved from the illegals to Mexicans, a fluid transition from complaining about these illegal people that have taken over Birmingham to all of a sudden complaining about these Mexicans and overhearing Spanish at Walmart.
BOB GARFIELD: Aren’t the bigger fish to fry here in society’s dealing with immigration than word choice?
JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: To me, questioning the use of the word “illegal” when referring to people opens up the conversation. I’m not what you think I am. We are not who you think we are. We’re not the other people. We’re actually one of you. That’s why this is not just word play, this is actually at the heart of this conversation, what we’re called and why we’re called what we’re called. We know how Washington thinks about this. We know that it’s like a political hot potato. If news rooms can’t have this conversation, then we’re not gonna get anywhere with this issue.
BOB GARFIELD: Let’s just say you’re successful. Let’s just say the AP Stylebook and the New York Times decide that it is less stigmatizing and more accurate to say “undocumented” –
JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: Or “unauthorized,” yeah.
BOB GARFIELD: Is it not inevitable that in a very short time we’re gonna be having this conversation again, only this time you’ll be trying to remove the word “undocumented” from the lexicon because it has taken on a stigma?
JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: I see completely your question in this whole notion of this being a slippery slope. I’m sorry that [LAUGHS] I am almost – myopic in my focus on this one word and this one term because I’ve grown up with it. And it comes with – not only a personal baggage but it comes with this kind of journalistic question of how can we be as accurate and as descriptive as possible? And I’m sorry to say this, as far as I’m concerned, “illegal immigrant” and “illegal alien” are neither of those things.
BOB GARFIELD: Jose, thank you.
JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: Thank you so much.
BOB GARFIELD: Jose Antonio Vargas is a journalist and founder of the “Define American” Project.