A Matter of Grammar and Law


Diamond Member
Jul 11, 2004

Ricardo Pimentel on immigration -- and the nuances journalists should not ignore.

By O. Ricardo Pimentel (more by author)
Editorial Page Editor, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Did you know that it's not criminal to be an undocumented immigrant? In fact, one of the burning issues in the recent and ongoing debate on immigration reform is whether to make such mere presence a felony.

If you didn't know this, you probably didn't read past that headline. You know, the one with the word Illegals emblazoned in large type. Maybe even in your own newspaper.

"There he goes again," some of you are probably thinking. "Politically correct Ricardo." That's one take, I guess. Another might be, "trying-to-be-accurate Ricardo." It's a matter of both grammar and law. Illegal as a noun offends both -- not to mention the offense given by stigmatizing an entire group of people.

Yes, we're talking about illegal immigration. But illegal is a modifier, not generally a noun. And presence without the required papers, under current law, is a civil violation, not a criminal one.

"But they crossed the border illegally," you say. Maybe -- but maybe not. Many of the people here without documents have overstayed their visas. In other words, they got here legally. And is a child, who had no say in the matter but was brought to this country by migrant parents without documents, illegal?

Funny how it's OK to use illegal, without an alleged in front, only in the context of immigration. Imagine this headline: "Illegal robs bank" over a story in which your common, garden-variety, native-born criminal holds up one of your local banks.

Robbing a bank is illegal, so one could make a strong argument that this headline would be OK. I'm guessing you still wouldn't use it. Even though we're talking about a real, honest-to-goodness crime, not an act that some aspire to make a crime. And even if this person is caught, he becomes a suspect -- in other words, an alleged bank robber.

But I view the use of the term illegal -- as a noun -- as more of a reflection and consequence of American newsrooms than anything else. It's pretty clear that too many newspapers simply don't know how to cover immigration. Part of it is a language problem. Too few newsrooms have Spanish speakers. But part of it is also a cultural problem. Too few newsrooms are bicultural, with deeper understanding of Latino cultures than can be derived by cursory observance or passing acquaintance.

So I'm guessing that there aren't a lot of people, in many of those newspapers that have illegals in their headlines, who might be genuinely offended because we're criminalizing an entire group of people who happen to look a lot like them.

I happen to be offended.

My parents were illegals at one time. So, I am likely to say something when I see it in a headline. Or when I see a story that seems to buy too heavily into stereotypes about immigrants.

And the sense I get is that folks believe my protest is all a matter of a personal agenda. Well, yeah. I like to be accurate and I'm generally not in favor of slamming entire groups of people. Neither should you.

But I wonder if anyone stops to think about the agenda of those insisting that illegals be used. I've heard from many people who believe this -- generally after I've written something that uses the term undocumented immigrant.

It's clear to me that many of these people simply want to make a political point about illegal immigration. And they want their local newspaper to agree with them. So, they call their local columnists when they read undocumented. Or they call the copy desk chief. Or the editor. Or the publisher.

If all of this results in a discussion about calling people illegals, this might even be a good thing. Many times, I'm guessing, it's simply a matter of bending to the will of squeaky wheels.

Every time I see the word in a headline -- and, less frequently, in a story -- I think of my parents. But I also think of the undocumented immigrants I have run across -- particularly in Arizona, where I spent time as a columnist.

Some of them would come to me because I frequently wrote about immigration matters. They'd ask for advice. I'd refer them to folks far more expert. But there was a pattern.

Many of them had children who were U.S. citizens. Many owned their own homes. One, threatened with deportation, joined the U.S. Army. They worked. They paid taxes. And thinking of most of them and "criminals" in the same thought, I'm sure, would not even occur to you. Calling them illegals to their faces wouldn't, either.

So, why put it in 48-point type?

It's not that there aren't real criminals among them -- but it's likely that the proportion of criminals to non-criminals is similar to that of the rest of the population.

Politically correct? I'm guessing a lot of folks who use this term simply long for the days when there were fewer brakes on what we could put in newspapers. But there is the right way to cover an issue and the wrong way.

I have some hints on covering the immigrant community in broader fashion. It's pretty simple stuff: Go where they go. Talk to them. If you can't, find someone who can translate. I'd bet -- no, I know -- that you'll find a whole lot of people who don't fit into that stereotype of refusing to learn English.

So go where they go and talk to them, even when immigration isn't the mega-issue du jour. You'll find out that they have many of the same concerns that you have.

Illegals? Unless that U.S. House bill passes, no. Just people. Or, as one friend of mine calls them, undocumented taxpayers.

The National Association of Hispanic Journalists has an interesting discussion about other dos and don'ts in covering immigration. You can find it here.

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