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NY Times Writer Criticized By Readers Over Use of the Term 'Illegals'

Bill Keller, former executive editor and Op-Ed writer for the New York Times posed an interesting question on his blog Tuesday.

Apparently, a number of readers have written in objecting to Keller's use of the word “illegals” as short-form for “illegal immigrants.” Below are just a few of the disgruntled samples from his in-box:

    • I am bothered by your use of the word “illegals” in your recent column (“The Good Newt”). I am writing to you personally because comments are already closed for your piece at nytimes.com.
    • “Illegal” is an adjective, not a noun.

  • This is not simply a matter of grammatical correctness. Shortening “illegal immigrants” to “illegals” reduces human beings to a status label, and a morally loaded one at that. It reduces the essence of a person to an act of violation, an offense. When you use “illegals” as the object of a sentence it literally erases the human beings who the sentence is about and makes the grammatical object of the sentence an abstraction, a label of condemnation.

  • If you choose to refer to people who have immigrated to this country without the authorization of the U.S. Federal Government or those who stayed past the expiration of their visas as “illegal immigrants” that is your prerogative. It is a morally loaded rhetorical choice that reduces the essence of a person to a status label, and it is not a choice I agree with, but it is your choice to make and it is not technically an incorrect one.

Keller also received these harsh words:

  • I am wondering if you refer to rapists and murderers as “illegals.” This is a made-up word with an agenda, which is why I had a difficult time reading your otherwise informative piece.
  • We can’t have a civil conversation about immigration in this country with this derogatory, made-up word tossed around. As a Latina, who was born and raised in the United States, I find this deeply offensive.

Keller, however, states that he used the word only to refer to people who are actually in this country illegally, stating:

I was careful not to apply it to families, which are often of mixed legal status. And I used it in a context where the subject was their legal status.

I checked the NYT style book, and found the guidance not terribly helpful. The entry is not explicit on “illegals.” It says only this: “Illegal immigrant is the preferred term, rather than the sinister-sounding illegal alien. Do not use the euphemism undocumented.”

For further guidance and clarification, Keller says he turned to Phil Corbett, The Times newsroom’s "arbiter of style and taste." A portion of his response follows:

Yes, while it’s not explicit in the style book, our practice is to avoid “illegals” as well as “illegal aliens,” and on the other hand, to also steer clear of the euphemistic “undocumented workers.”

I do think “illegals” as a shorthand noun has an unnecessarily pejorative tone, and it is routinely used by the anti-immigration side. I think it’s wise to steer clear. We also get push back over “illegal immigrant,” but to me that’s just factual and neutral. However, I also encourage people to follow the lead of Julia Preston [who covers immigration issues for The Times] and look for more explicit descriptions when appropriate in specific cases, both to avoid formulaic repetition and to provide more information: “who overstayed his visa,” “working without a legal permit,” “who entered the country illegally,” etc., etc.

Keller closes the entry by telling his readers that they may have gotten the style book updated and that he will do his best to refrain from using the term "illegals" again in the future.

But this is not the only time questions have arisen over the use of the term "illegal alien." And while the New York Times claims it refrains from using "undocumented worker" a number of media outlets and publications have used the term in increasing frequency, giving way to what many believe is a display of political correctness.

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