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Guest Voz: The problem with debate over the ‘i’ word is that it needs more perspective(s)

Marisa Treviño

The debate over the usage of “illegal immigrant” versus “undocumented or unauthorized immigrant” is heating up all over again thanks to one of the most prominent undocumented immigrants in the country — Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas.

Jose Antonio Vargas calls on media outlets to drop the term “illegal immigrant” at the 2012 Online News Association Conference and Awards Banquet in San Francisco on Sept. 21.
(Photo: Ingrid Rojas/ABC-Univision)

Philippines-born Vargas made headlines recently when he spoke in front of media professionals who had gathered in San Francisco at the 2012 Online News Association Conference. Vargas made a single request and a single announcement. He asked media outlets to stop using the term “illegal immigrant” when covering stories about immigrants who were in the country without their papers, saying that “the term dehumanizes and marginalizes the people it seeks to describe.”

He then announced that his non-profit, Define American, would begin monitoring two high-profile media outlets who have been insistent in their usage of the term, seen by many in the immigrant and Latino community as derogatory.

Almost immediately after Vargas’ appearance, newspapers from east to west and north to south have written critical editorials in response to Vargas.

The Augusta Chronicle in Augusta, Georgia, a southern state that has taken a hard stance against undocumented immigrants, rebutted Vargas.

Vargas also believes that the term “illegal immigrant” “dehumanizes and marginalizes the people it seeks to describe.” He prefers the term “undocumented immigrant.”

So to what absurd extreme would he like to verbally obscure law-breaking? Car thieves, perhaps? Imagine a police officer telling this to a victim: “Sorry, ma’am, this isn’t a car theft. It’s just an undocumented borrowing.”
To the credit of AP and the Times, for the most part they’re not budging.

From the Chronicle’s response, two clear assumptions can be made: The editorial board must not have any Latino writers, nor must these writers fear any kind of backlash from readers. Two assumptions that can be quickly and easily verified — editorial board staff and Census figures for the town.

When a news media organization has only minimal staff diversity in management, the sensitivity to different groups of readers/viewers is at a minimum, if at all. So, they approach their stand on issues from one of ignorant justification. It’s only when news media attempt to diversify or collaborate with niche news media that a level of understanding about other groups is increased and a higher awareness ensues.

That seems to be the case with ABC News and Univision. It wasn’t long ago that ABC News announced a partnership with Univision to launch a cable and digital network in 2013.

There are signs that partnering with Univision is opening up doors of thought not before considered by ABC. For example, do undocumented immigrants really care if they’re referred to by the “i” word?

In a refreshing move, an announcement was made on Tuesday from Immigration Editor, Ted Hesson, of the ABC/Univision site asking undocumented immigrants to fill out a short survey about their feelings on how they are described in the press. The result is what would be expected: overwhelming majority don’t like it and most are Latino and young.

Whether or not ABC takes the feelings of these viewers/readers into account in future coverage of immigration stories remains to be seen, but one thing is certain — diversity doesn’t just open the door to new perspectives, it magnifies ignorance masked as complacent acceptance.

Marisa Treviño is the publisher and founder of Latina Lista.

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