AP makes ‘illegals’ illegal

Originally published in the Baltimore Sun on April 5th, 2013.

This week the AP Stylebook, the standardized style guide for newspapers and other publications across the United States, announced that no longer, under their rules, will it be acceptable to use the term “illegal immigrant.” AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll explained that the term “illegal” is incorrect when labeling people and “should describe only an action, such as living in or immigrating to a country illegally.”

The change, proponents argue, is necessary because labeling individuals as “illegals” or “illegal” is an unfair designation that no other criminal or civil offender in this country receives. Jose Antonio Vargas, a former Washington Post reporter and immigrant activist, has called the term “illegal immigrant” dehumanizing. In a Fox News Latino survey conducted last year, nearly half of Latino voters responded that they find the term “illegal immigrant” offensive.

About two months ago a similar political AP Style debate played out with regard to same-sex marriages. An internal memo was leaked that said the AP would use “couples or partners to describe people in civil unions or same-sex marriages” as opposed to the terms “husband” and “wife.” This separate-but-equal discourse for legal same-sex marriages drew the ire of the gay community, causing the AP to change its position within the week.

These questions of language have real ramifications; the way that ideas are presented in the press impacts how people understand and relate to the issues, and the effort to avoid potentially loaded terms is never-ending.

For example, in the case of immigrants who enter the country illegally, the AP also now advises journalists to avoid the term “undocumented.” AP argues that often these individuals do hold some sort of documentation, therefore it’s inaccurate to assert otherwise. And in the case of the gay community, in November AP editors advised the press to avoid the term “homophobia” because, in their view, homophobia implies that anti-gay sentiment is based in irrational fear. AP now encourages journalists to use the term “anti-gay bigotry” instead.

(At The Baltimore Sun, the terms “illegal immigrants” and “homophobia” are still acceptable.)

The AP is not alone in revising its language related to immigration; New York Times officials have also said they also want to revise their style book to promote a more nuanced immigration discourse. But nuance may be the enemy of brevity. The AP’s new guidelines say, “Specify wherever possible how someone entered the country illegally and from where. Crossed the border? Overstayed a visa? What nationality?”

Certainly it’s important to find ways to describe such divisive political issues that is both accurate and neutral, but it can also lead to language that is clunky or, worse yet, not easily understood. Moreover, the effort to avoid potentially freighted language is almost inevitably viewed by those involved in the debate as taking sides. The AP’s effort to avoid controversy in its stylebook has often only courted it instead. In a highly polarized society, it may simply be impossible to find terms that please everyone.

Advertisements

The Forgotten Side of the Immigration Debate

Originally published in the Baltimore Sun on March 8th, 2013.
————————————————————————

Recently, I returned home from a three-week stay in Guanajuato, Mexico. I lived with a gracious Mexican family, took Spanish classes and had the chance to immerse myself in Mexican culture. Mexican society was beautiful and vibrant — full of ideas, art and religion. Needless to say, the crude stereotypes of drug cartels and kidnappings were hardly relevant or applicable to my experience, or the experience of anyone I met.

As my trip wound down, I said to my host parents, “Por favor, vengan a visitar a mi familia en los Estados Unidos!” I wanted them to come see my house and meet my family in Pennsylvania. They smiled sadly and told me that would not be likely, because of the difficult hurdles and high costs of obtaining tourist visas.

They are right, of course. While it is not impossible, it is much harder for Mexicans than for, say, Canadians and Europeans to travel to the United States — because Mexico is not part of the U.S. Visa Waiver Program. This program allows individuals to travel without a visa to the United States for stays of 90 days or less.

Indeed, I also did not need to apply for a visa to travel to Mexico for my visit. But for most countries in the world, and for not-unfounded reasons, potential visitors need to go through various steps in an often arduous process. They must do an interview at a consulate office abroad; they need to file paperwork that shows they have significant ties that keep them at home; and they need to show proof that they are not likely to become a burden on the public system if they travel to the U.S. In essence, if you are not part of the Visa Waiver Program, the burden of proof is on you.

“It’s kind of a crap shoot [for Mexicans], it takes a long time, and it’s expensive,” said Eleanor Sohnen, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. Whether or not they are ultimately granted a visa, prospective visitors must still pay the nonrefundable $160 application fee, or about 2,037 pesos. “They are often declared ineligible, so they may be dissuaded from even trying at all,” Ms. Sohnen said.

Just how difficult it is for applicants from Mexico (or any other country) to visit the United States is challenging to address, because the State Department does not publish the number of applications it receives for non-immigrant visas, only the number of visas ultimately issued. Thus there is no clear number available to the public of how many applicants were denied.

Back home in the U.S., I now find “comprehensive immigration reform” splashed across the front pages of the major newspapers. They are full of discussions about tighter border controls, crackdowns on employers, paths to citizenship, bipartisan consensus, the DREAM Act, the Latino vote and changing demographics. I read all of it closely to try and understand exactly if and how my host family would be affected by these proposed changes.

It seems to me that the conversation is leaving out those individuals from Mexico who are not looking to come to the United States to work, to study or to live. To the extent that they are included in the national discussion, it’s merely to point out symptoms of a problem we need to address with those who overstay their visas. With all the talk of enhanced security on the borders, I can’t help but remember how easily I was able to cross their border to explore and to learn. I remember how American music frequently blasts on their radios and how my host mom’s favorite television shows were “Bones” and “NCIS” (translated into Spanish). American culture is alive and present in Mexico, but the vast majority of Mexicans that could theoretically visit America will likely never have that chance.

I would think that with our country’s economic woes, there must be something we can do to address our fundamental immigration problems while still encouraging tourism from Mexican citizens. The system as it stands now discourages it.

To be sure, many of the 11 million illegal immigrants in this country entered legally and then overstayed their visas. I recognize this is an enormous and expensive problem. But I find it hard to believe that the only way we can sufficiently limit the number of undocumented workers in the United States is by making it extremely hard for most Mexicans to visit. We certainly have the minds and ingenuity to create a system that ensures those who travel on tourist visas return to their host country, and that eases the process of applying for and obtaining tourist visas.

I am not suggesting Mexico be added now to the Visa Waiver Program but that we do look more closely at the hurdles to travel that many well-intentioned Mexicans face. Include them in the national immigration reform discussion. The increased tourism would economically benefit our country, as would affording others the same freedoms to travel that we so often take for granted.

I’d like to one day welcome into my home my host parents — two hard-working individuals who have no desire to move to America.