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The readers’ editor on… whether we should use the term ‘illegal immigrant’

The Guardian - 24 August 2014 - A person can’t be illegal – but is there a concise alternative to describe someone who is in a country unlawfully?


One of the more noticeable shifts in the way language is used is the move to avoid defining people by any disability they may have. For example, the Guardian’s style guide says this about Down’s syndrome: “Say (if relevant) ‘a baby with Down’s syndrome’, not ‘a Down’s syndrome baby’ – we wouldn’t say ‘a cerebral palsy baby’. The diagnosis is not the person.” Quite. Broadly, journalists are actively discouraged from writing about people with disabilities as disabled people.

However, the principle of not defining people by their circumstances can be extended beyond issues of health. The use of “illegal immigrant” is a term human rights activists would like to see ended, as in this example in the Guardian in a story published on 30 July, headlined “David Cameron criticised for PR stunt in home of suspected illegal immigrants”. One paragraph read: “The government has previously been criticised for sending out vans with billboards telling illegal immigrants to ‘go home or face arrest’. The pilot project, which resulted in 11 people leaving Britain, was not extended.”

Following that story, Lisa Matthews, the coordinator of Right to Remain, wrote to the Guardian expressing her concern about the use of the term:

“We are disappointed the Guardian has chosen to use the terms ‘illegal immigrants’ and ‘illegal migrants’ in its articles (most recently, ‘David Cameron criticised for PR stunt in home of suspected illegal immigrants’, 30 July 2014),” she wrote.

“As human rights organisations working to support migrants (including undocumented migrants whose right to stay in the UK has not yet been formally established), we are troubled by the paper’s persistent use of this phrase.

“The term ‘illegal immigrant’ is inaccurate and dangerous. Even in the case of someone deemed to have committed an immigration offence by not having the correct papers, the person themselves is not ‘illegal’.

“It is also a dehumanising phrase, treating all undocumented migrants as a homogenised mass instead of the reality: individuals with unique experiences and stories to tell, who have not had their right to be in the UK recognised, usually due to legal and bureaucratic barriers, and the government’s increasing criminalisation of migration. The United Nations and the European parliament have called for an end to using the term, promoting the use of ‘undocumented’ or ‘irregular’ migrants instead.”

At around the same time Rebecca Moore of the Refugee Council wrote to the readers’ editor’s office asking the Guardian to cease using the term: “With the issue of immigration being extremely controversial, complex and always high up the news agenda, we believe it’s vitally important that reports on these issues strive to be accurate and precise and avoid the use of loaded terms. While a person’s actions can be illegal, it is not possible for a person themselves to be illegal.”

Moore also pointed out that the Associated Press news agency had decided to drop the term – about 18 months ago – as had the LA Times. Kathleen Carroll, AP’s senior vice-president and executive editor, said in the announcement of the change that its stylebook would no longer sanction “the use of ‘illegal’ to describe a person”. Instead, it tells users that “illegal” should describe only an action, such as living in or migrating to a country illegally.

Interestingly, AP decided against adopting the term “undocumented” because it is not precise. “A person may have plenty of documents, just not the ones required for legal residence,” Carroll said when she explained the thinking behind the decision.

So, we have a lobby – but I think it is one making perfectly reasonable arguments that have been accepted in relation to other terms.

David Marsh, the editor of the Guardian’s style guide, agrees but that leaves the question of what the Guardian recommends in place of the term “illegal immigrant”? Clumsy though it may sound, an “immigrant who is accused of entering the country illegally” may be the best option. However, what do readers think?

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