Post’s style guide on usage of phrase “illegal immigrant” raises questions

As an addendum to a shrill column by Ruben Navarette arguing that the term “illegal immigrant” should not be replaced by a phrase like “undocumented worker,”  The Denver Post Perspective section published its own guidelines on how Post journalists should use the terms.

Unfortunately, the explanation apparantly only appeared in the print edition.

I was going to ask The Post to put it online, and I’m thinking its omission was just an oversight, but before I did, I thought I’d put it out there for people to see:

Newspaper usage     

The Denver Post: The Post uses the term “illegal immigrants” in referring to citizens of foreign countries who are in this country with no passport, visa or other document to show that they are entitled to visit, work or live in the United States. We do not use “illegal aliens” or “illegals” except in direct quotes or in rare cases when the official government term “illegal aliens” is unavoidable. We will not use the nouns “alien” and “illegal” in headlines. The term “undocumented immigrants” or “undocumented workers” is an acceptable synonym but is more vague.

The Associated Press: The AP also prefers the term “illegal immigrant.” Unless quoting someone, the news service does not use the terms “illegal alien,” “an illegal,” “illegals” or the term “undocumented.”

My question for The Post is, what constitutes sufficient proof that an individual doesn’t  have a “passport, visa or other document to show that they are entitled to visit, work or live in the United States.”

If someone admits not having proper documentation? If immigration officials or police make this determination? If someone can’t produce documentation immediately? What’s the evidentiary standard?

It’s one thing to label the group of people who are presumably in the United States illegally as “illegal immigrants,” but it’s another to presume any single individual is an “illegal immigrant.”

Last year, Post City Editor Dana Coffield told me that The Post only refers to someone’s immigration status “when it becomes part of and material to the public record”–unlike talk-radio host Peter Boyles who dehumanizes himself and all of us by implying or asserting that someone with a Spanish surname is an “illegal.”

In his column in The Post, Navarette argued in part:

• The wording is accurate. When you enter the United States without permission or overstay a visa, you break a law. Vargas notes that “being in a country without proper documents is a civil offense, not a criminal one.” True. But the word “illegal” simply means against the law, and civil laws can be broken just like criminal ones.

• The proposed change is, for the most part, about being politically correct. And this is not a good spot from which to practice journalism. My profession isn’t about making folks comfortable. That’s public relations. At its best, journalism is about making them uncomfortable.

• The word police simply want to sanitize the debate, so that immigration reformers don’t get their hands dirty by condoning illegal activity.

Anyway, I’ll ask The Post my question about its style guide next week, and I’ll include a few of the best questions from my readers, if you have any. Shoot them my way, if you do to


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