Undocumented students challenge USA TODAY’s usage of “illegal students”

Undocumented students challenge USA TODAY’s usage of “illegal students”

LatinaLista — Looking back on this past decade, there are certain words that will forever mark this time in history: "going green," "GOOGLE," "Facebook," "Twitter" -- and "illegal immigrants."

Since the whole immigration debate erupted several years ago, the use of the term "illegal immigrant" has taken root in our everyday lexicon.


First used as the buzz word for organizations strategizing to turn public opinion against immigration reform or immigrants living in the country illegally, the term has now gained widespread acceptance.

It's not because of the efforts of these anti- immigration organizations, as much as it is the news media -- both text and broadcast -- who prefer to use the sloppy and insulting shorthand of saying "illegal immigrant" rather than the longer, tongue-tangler, word-hog of "undocumented immigrant."

There have been repeated attempts by the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) to educate colleagues that the term "illegal immigrant" has the same connotation for those immigrants labeled as such as the "N" word has for blacks.

However, because of the ubiquitous use of the term in referring to mainly Hispanic immigrants, it has now become synonymous as a modifier for anyone who is of Hispanic/Latino descent, regardless of their citizenship status.

Now, whenever non-Hispanics are polled about who they think Latinos are, invariably one of the top five responses is "illegal immigrant."

There is no doubt that mainstream media is responsible for perpetuating usage of this derogatory term. It is a shame and proof that mainstream colleagues still set themselves apart from their ethnic media peers since they remain so insensitive and dismissive to the wishes and recommendations of ethnic media regarding usage of the term "illegal immigrant."

Now, mainstream media, notably USA TODAY, has taken it another step further -- referring to undocumented students as "illegal students."

Yet, unlike their parents, these young men and women are fighting back to preserve the one thing they won't allow the media to take from them -- their dignity.

One particular undocumented student, Prerna Lal, first noticed USA TODAY's usage of the term and called them out on it. She got the following response from the reporter who used the term:

At USA TODAY, we use the term "illegal immigrants" to describe foreign nationals in the country illegally. If you're interested in finding out more about our style, or would like to hear a broader discussion about the terminology that reporters use to describe illegal immigrants, please take a look at a webcast I hosted this summer about this issue. It involved 14 journalists from around the country, plus a representative from NumbersUSA and the National Council of La Raza (NCLR).

Considering that USA TODAY's style is several months after the fact of when NAHJ requested that mainstream media outlets refrain from using the term given the sensitivity of the Latino population, it further exemplifies how little value Gannett, the parent company of USA TODAY, and other mainstream news media place on their relationships with Latino readers.

The usage of the term "illegal student" is seen as being just as bad, if not worse, than using the term "illegal immigrant." Considering that these students are all young people who are having a hard enough time trying to make sense of a life that they didn't choose for themselves, but are doing their best to make it work -- and academically excel at it, shows a gross insensitivity on the part of mainstream media to their feelings and the delicate emotional situations these students find themselves in by labeling them with a term already identified as dehumanizing and insulting.

It is to Prerna's credit that she is fighting back and in no small way. She has started a petition at to ask USA TODAY what they mean by using the term "illegal student."

In the span of less than 24 hours and only through word-of-mouth, the petition has garnered 260 signatures. Her goal is 500 and it looks like she will get it by the end of the weekend.

While the USA TODAY reporter was just doing her job and following company policy in how undocumented students are referred to, it's clear that not only USA TODAY must change company policy but also every other mainstream newspaper that insists on using this derogatory term to label a specific demographic.

With news that in 41 years white majority will end in the nation, as it already has in certain cities and regions across the country, it makes sense for mainstream media to start paying attention to the feelings and demands of a population that will comprise the largest share of citizenry in the future -- and of tomorrow's readers.



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