Debating the 'i' word

Erica, native of Mexico, crossed into the United States illegally six years ago with the help of "coyotes," who provided false identification papers and transportation. She lives in Minnesota.
MPR Photo/Ambar Espinoza

The forum came about in large part in response to immigration activists' frustration with media descriptions of immigrant groups. Most media outlets, including Minnesota Public Radio, have a policy of referring to individuals who are in the country illegally as "illegal immigrants." Many activists prefer the phrase "undocumented immigrants."

This thorny semantic issue dominated the evening.

Anne Attea, a coordinator of Hispanic ministry in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, provided a perspective shared by many immigration activists.

Generations of immigration
Protesters turned out at a huge rally at the Capitol in St. Paul in April to oppose efforts to make illegal immigrants felons. Immigrants said they want to give their children a better life than they could in their home countries.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

"The term 'illegal' is particularly damaging because it's more about perpetuating and sustaining negative labeling, and even criminalizing a whole group of people who, for the majority of them, are here working hard and contributing to society," said Attea. "From our perspective, no human is illegal. You can be documented and undocumented."

Jim Quinn of the conservative John Birch Society disagreed with those points. His organization advocates for a number of issues, including tighter border security and stricter measures against illegal immigration. Quinn was opposed to weakening that sense of "illegal."

"Laws are necessary for everyone's security and well-being," Quinn said. "If people are allowed, through an elaborate system of rationalizations, to violate the law, then any law can be violated. And the issue isn't immigration, from the John Birch point of view, it's a matter of lawbreaking. It's a matter of upholding the system."

Eventually, a reporter waded into the debate. Jean Hopfensperger of the Star Tribune defended her own journalistic practice, and tried to expand the picture a bit.

Go home
Another rally at the Capitol in April was organized by immigration opponents. Signs showcased slogans like, "What part of illegal don't you understand?" and "If you are illegal, go home."
MPR Photo

"I use {the word} 'illegal' because it's our policy, but also because 'undocumented' is in many senses inaccurate, in the sense that many people have documents. It could be fake documents, they could be their brother's documents. They have documents," said Hopfensperger. "What about the stay-at-home mom? Is she the undocumented housewife? It creates all sorts of linguistic problems."

But Hopfensperger's line of argument didn't hold sway with many of the immigration activists present.

One member of the audience pointed out how damaging it can be for children of immigrants to hear themselves referred to as "illegal." She said that would erode any child's sense of value or potential.

That point about the stigmatizing effects of the term "illegal" proved persuasive for Steve Murphy of WCCO Radio.

"My thought was, it wasn't too many years ago that a child born out of wedlock was called illegitimate. I'm being enlightened tonight. I'm going to take this back to my newsroom," Murphy said.

That was the most explicit promise made by a journalist at the forum to re-examine newsroom policy on immigration language. But audience member Richard Patten took it as evidence that immigration supporters have journalists in their pocket.

"We're seeing right here now why the media -- the major media, public radio, newspapers -- can never handle this issue with any objectivity, because they are under pressures to say nice things," Patten said.

Ruben Rosario, a columnist with the Pioneer Press, differed with that view. He said no solution put forth in the discussion would please everyone.

"Whether we choose 'illegal immigrants' or 'undocumented workers,' somebody's going to be angered by it, somebody's going to be praising it," Rosario said.

No concensus was reached on how the media should deal with these questions, but participants of differing political stripes left the forum saying the discussion had, nevertheless, been fruitful.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.