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Keller @ Large: The Debate Over The Term ‘Illegal Immigrant’

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Jose Antonio Vargas (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Jose Antonio Vargas (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

WBZ-TV's Jon Keller Jon Keller
Jon Keller is WBZ-TV News' Political Analyst, and his "Keller A...
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BOSTON (CBS) – Remember Jose Antonio Vargas, the Pulitzer-prize winning journalist who caused a stir last year when he disclosed he had been secretly living here illegally since age 12?

Listen to Jon’s commentary:

He does not like being described as “illegal,” and is out to break the news media’s widespread habit of using the term “illegal immigrant.”

Vargas argues that “describing an immigrant as illegal is legally inaccurate” because being here “without proper documents is a civil offense, not a criminal one.”

He claims the term “dehumanizes and marginalizes the people it seeks to describe.” And he’s named the New York Times as one of his first lobbying targets.

A top editor there, Phil Corbett, has offered a response to the website Poynter.org.

Corbett says his paper tries to avoid stereotyping when it covers immigrants and their issues, but notes that “it is, in fact, illegal to enter, live or work in this country without valid documents…. ‘Illegal’ is not a synonym for ‘criminal.’”

And Corbett adds: “Proposed alternatives like ”undocumented” seem really to be euphemisms – as though this were just a bureaucratic mix-up that can easily be remedied. Often those phrases seem deliberately chosen to try to soften or minimize the significance of the lack of legal status.”

Put me down with the Times on this one.

I’m sure Vargas’s crusade is well-meaning, but his complaint is part of an easy-grievance culture that fuels some of the same gratuitous immigrant-bashing that so outrages him.

If only the media didn’t use a certain term, anti-immigrant animosity would ease?

That seems like an awfully superficial response to some major social problems.

If the term “illegal immigrant” has become toxic, it’s because it’s become a euphemism to some for crime, or welfare dependency.

By all means, promote stories and news coverage that might change those minds, that’s fine.

But don’t turn a serious issue into an unserious battle of the euphemisms.

You can listen to Keller At Large on WBZ News Radio every weekday at 7:55 a.m. and 12:25 p.m. You can also watch Jon on WBZ-TV News.

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