Latina Lista: News from the Latinx perspective > Palabra Final > Immigration > 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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  • cookie
    December 18, 2009 at 5:12 pm

    There is no comparison between using the “N” word and using the term illegal alien or illegal immigrant. The “N” word is considered racist. Illegals are not from just one race and therefore using the proper term is not racist but describes their unlawful presence in this country.
    What next, are bank robbers going to resent being called “bank robbers”?

  • Prerna Lal
    December 18, 2009 at 8:12 pm

    Thanks for this beautiful piece. Almost made me cry especially this part: “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.”
    That’s right!

  • David O. Garcia
    December 19, 2009 at 8:58 am

    Are you going to write an op-ed piece for USA Today this topic? I hope so.

  • roland
    December 19, 2009 at 12:22 pm

    I agree that “illegal” is a harsh word, but “undocumented” is not a truthful word, since most immigrants have documents — just not documents that authorize them to live in this country. How about “unauthorized immigrants”?
    With your last paragraph, you just can’t resist inserting a little triumphalism, along with a veiled threat. No wonder so many in the U.S. are suspicious of the Latino agenda. I wonder how happy the residents of any Latin American country would be if millions of English-speakers moved in without authorization, demanded all sorts of special treatment, and then bragged about their impending demographic takeover.

  • El Guapo
    December 20, 2009 at 5:14 am

    A lot of time and energy is wasted on arguing semantics.

  • Marisa Treviño
    December 21, 2009 at 9:14 am

    El Guapo, But the bottom line is that words label and they do hurt.

  • Marisa Treviño
    December 21, 2009 at 9:20 am

    David, I can guarantee you that USA Today isn’t one bit interested in publishing an op-ed on this topic – unfortunate.

  • Marisa Treviño
    December 21, 2009 at 9:23 am

    Prerna, I commend you for speaking out and challenging an institution that has a poor track record for responding to people of color. Congratulations on reaching your petition goal and I hope these media companies realize that they need to listen to all their readers.

  • Marisa Treviño
    December 21, 2009 at 9:28 am

    Cookie, unfortunately, there does now exist a comparison between using the term “illegal immigrant” with the “N” word. Back when the “N” word was in ubiquitous use, people expressed the same opinion as you are expressing now. They didn’t see anything wrong with the word and chalked it up to blacks as being “oversensitive.”
    Well, words label people and while they label people they also plant a preconceived idea of who that person is. As I said in my piece, when non-Hispanic people are asked about who Latinos are, the term “illegal immigrant” always comes up. Why is that? Your attempt to belittle people’s feelings over usage of the term does nothing but betrays your feelings about the term – not that you’ve kept those feelings hidden.

  • Marisa Treviño
    December 21, 2009 at 9:35 am

    Roland, The last paragraph has nothing to do with “inserting a little triumphalism.” It’s a matter of fact. Being in the news industry, it’s a warning bell that I, and several of my colleagues, have tried to tell the industry — if they want to save the industry, they need to pay attention to communities they never considered their primary readers. Up till now, they have failed to do that and their industry is reflecting that. In these communities, it has less to do with people’s reading habits migrating to the Internet and more with knowing that the local paper doesn’t write for them.

  • cookie
    December 21, 2009 at 11:33 pm

    Marisa, again I disagree. The “N” word was not part of a term used to describe a lawbreakers. Illegal alien is the proper government term for someone in our country illegally. Americans aren’t dumb they know why Latinos object to that term and that is because most illegals in this country are Latinos and most Latinos stick up for them because of the tribal mentality of the culture. They don’t want a bad light shed on them and want to draw attention away from the fact that they violted our immigration laws which is subject to deportation. There is absolutely nothing offensive about that term in theory at all. It fits the situation exactly.

  • cookie
    December 22, 2009 at 7:54 am

    Marisa, can’t help but put your misconcetions to rest on this one.
    You claim that since the “white majority” will end, news agencies should start writing to accommodate Hispanics?
    First of all, Hispanics make WAAAY TOO MUCH about the end of the “white majority.” Just because whites will not be a “majority,” does not exactly mean they will be a minority group either! What the demographic projections indicate is that whites will comprise 49% of the population by 2050, with the other 51% or so being comprised of ALL OTHER RACES!!! IOW, if Hispanics were 49% of the total population RIGHT NOW, they’d already be declaring victory! Even by 2050, they will only comprise about 30% of the population! HARDLY A “MAJORITY!” And this is ONLY if current immigration levels remain constant! As the article to which you linked indicates, this is in no way a sure thing! As we become more of a Socialist country, our economy will stagnate just as they have in Europe where double-digit unemployment is the NORM. Our overwhelming debt will ensure that our dollar continues to decline in value, and countries like China will stop lending to us. Our economic future looks terrible. Nobody will be coming to this nation in another few years when our economy comes to a screaching halt. All interest in “the land” will cease (as we know that is just a ruse anyhow to form a phony justification for illegal entry).
    In another 40 or 50 years, this country will be well on its way to another third world banana republic. It’s former greatness only to be read about like the Roman Empire.
    So, Marisa you and the other ethnocentrics should hold off on popping the champagne cork for a while over the diminishment of a certain race of people in the country (how racist is that?). Especially since the only way that could possibly come about is through continued illegal immigration.
    Another fact that Hispanics are not taking into consideration is this: “Hispanic” counts anyone who claims ANY Hispanic heritage. IOW, if someone has one Hispanic grandparent, they can be counted as “Hispanic.” So, it’s not as cut and dried as the racist ethnocentrics like to think. Their jubilation over the extinction/diminishment of whites in this country is greatly over-exaggerated.
    It is really beyond pathetic that many Hispanics are slobbering over their misconceived wishes and notions that they will be responsible for the diminishment of white anglos in this country especially through illegal immigration.

  • Bryan J.
    December 24, 2009 at 12:47 pm

    There is one exception to the analogy of the “N” word and the term “illegal immigrant student”–students that came here after 18 on visas that subsequently expired. For them, even though the word is still demeaning, it is not an immutable characteristic. They chose to come here and stay here past whatever authorized allotment of time they were given.
    However, for those that came here as minors, those students really have no choice and therefore the analogy stands.

  • Mike O
    December 31, 2009 at 2:48 am

    Illegal should not be used as a noun – it is more correct to use Criminal.
    Lisa Navarette’s USAtoday letter of 12/23 rightly deplores ungrammatical use of the word “Illegal”. We need to replace it with a noun that properly describes Illegal Aliens, a.k.a. Illegal “Immigrants”. The thesaurus on my computer suggests replacing Illegal with Unlawful, Illegitimate, Illicit, Dishonest, Criminal, or Fraudulent. Derived from this list, appropriate nouns for Illegal Aliens would be Criminals or Frauds. But these terms are too broad. A further thesaurus searche, this time on the nouns Criminal and Fraud, produces the terms Impostor, Intruder, Trespasser, Invader, Raider, Marauder, Looter, or Plunderer. While the first four of these nouns apply to all who enter the USA illegally, the rest should be reserved for those who come here illegally with the intent of sending back to their “real” homes money earned in the USA – money that would be used by legitimate immigrants to support the USA through proper payments of taxes, health care, schooling costs, and all the other expenses that the rest of us contribute to as citizens.
    Instead of Illegal, why not agree to use Trespasser to describe those who come to the US illegally with the intent of making their home here. We can reserve Marauder for those who come merely to plunder our country.

  • cookie
    December 31, 2009 at 2:19 pm

    According to the word illegal can be used as either a noun or an adjective. In the case of the term illegal alien, illegal is being used as an adjective. It describes the status of a foreigner (alien) in our country. So no, there is nothing grammatically incorrect about the term illegal alien. Pro-advocates object to it because it calls attention to the fact that they are here in violation of our immigration laws and want a more PC term to downplay their actions and presence in our country. It doesn’t fly with most Americans and we can see right through their agenda.

  • Erica
    January 17, 2010 at 2:23 pm

    Please do not compare illegal immigrants to Black Americans. We, as Black Americans, do not identify with illegal immigrants. Black Americans are just that, American. Illegal immigrants are not. One thing that I don’t understand is how so many Hispanic groups attempt to use our fights in the US as an example of what illegal immigrants go through: Mexicans and groups from Central and South America could care less about black people, but you guys try to use our history as a talking point. Enough of that. We do NOT identify with you and we should increase our fight against illegal immigration because many illegal immigrants are low-skilled, impoverished and have come in and taken young black men and women’s jobs. So, I just wanted to let Latina Lista know that Black Americans do not identify with you. As for the black leaders that have joined you all, they only did it for their exposure.

  • Marisa Treviño
    January 18, 2010 at 6:57 am

    Wow Erica, I wish you were better informed to discuss this with you but one fact remains: the Civil Rights struggles, the fight against discrimination and racial profiling are definite instances that Latinos and blacks share. For you to say that you don’t identify with that. a.k.a. acknowledge that, is suspect to me. At least, Latina Lista takes comfort in knowing that the majority of black readers of LL feel the polar opposite of you.

  • cookie
    January 18, 2010 at 8:32 am

    Wrong, Marisa. The Civil Rights Era was about Black Americans. There is no comparison to those who are illegally in our country. There is no discrimination en masse against Hispanic Americans.
    Erica is right. Most Black Americans do not identify will illegal aliens in this country nor Hispanics in general. It is your pipedream. Jesse Jackson is just a race hustler using this issue to stay in the limelight.

  • Evelyn
    January 19, 2010 at 7:24 pm

    Erica :
    Please do not compare illegal immigrants to Black Americans. We, as Black Americans, do not identify with illegal immigrants.
    You can only speak for yourself because the majority of Black Americans and their leaders dont agree with you.
    Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Intersection of Immigration and Civil Rights
    Georgia: Police and church leaders seek immigration reform
    ATLANTA — Georgia Congressman Hank Johnson joined law enforcement and religious leaders Tuesday in calling for immigration reform to increase the security of local communities and improve the treatment of immigrants.
    In a panel discussion at Atlanta’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Center, Johnson called for “commonsense American solutions” to repair the country’s “broken immigration system.”
    Holding the event at the King Center was symbolic because immigration reform is ultimately a human rights issue, Johnson said.
    Rep. Luis Gutierrez renewing comprehensive immigration push Tuesday
    By Lynn Sweeton December 15, 2009 10:15 AM |
    WASHINGTON DC–Today, Congressman Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) joined Representatives of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the Congressional Asian and Pacific Americans Caucus,
    { the Congressional Black Caucus, }
    and the Congressional Progressive Caucus to introduce the “Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America’s Security Act and Prosperity” (CIR A.S.A.P.) in the U.S. House of Representatives.
    Black Leaders Speak on Immigration Reform
    Though the immigration bill lost its legs in a tough Senate battle, the war over immigratior reform has just begun. The issue remains a top priority as American workers grapple with the growing number of illegal immigrants in the U.S. African Americans, especially, are concerned about the lack of a comprehensive immigration reform bill.
    In June, several civil rights and policy leaders gathered to discuss strategies to address the immigration crisis and the impact it has on African American workers. The group, which included Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, and Mary Frances Berry, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, among others, agreed that only a comprehensive reform bill that would protect the rights of all low-wage workers would help the increasingly divisive problem of immigration. They are calling for legislation that would include family reunification, enforcement of anti-discrimination laws and workplace standards, job skills training and a pathway to citizenship.
    “We need to focus on solutions that will work instead of efforts that demonize and divide,” says Stephanie Jones, executive director of the National Urban League’s Policy Institute.
    The guestworker program in the initial bill proposed, for example, was seen as exploitive and providing amnesty to those who were in the country illegally. A common assumption in the Black community is that illegal immigrants take jobs from African Americans because they are willing to accept less pay.
    But that assumption is more perception than reality says Steven Pitts, an economist at the Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of California, Ber-keley. Pitts notes that there is a major job crisis in the Black community, but that the problems in the labor market are not caused by immigration.
    “We need to disconnect the Black job problem and immigration,” says Pitts. “The real problem is racism.”

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