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Are they illegal immigrants or undocumented students? Both

August 31, 2011 |  2:55 pm

California Dream Act rally Immigration is such a hot-button issue that even the words used to write about the topic get debated.

"Illegal" and "undocumented" are two of the terms that are often questioned. Reader R.J. Johnson of North Hollywood found them both in an Aug. 24 article about a rally in support of the California Dream Act, which would allow college students who are illegal immigrants to qualify for public financial aid.

"In the lead-in to Teresa Watanabe's article, the words used are 'the undocumented.' But in the actual article, Watanabe uses the phrase 'illegal immigrants,'" Johnson wrote.

"L.A. Times, which is it?"

Well, it doesn't have to be one or the other.

The Times' Style and Usage Guide advocates the use of "illegal immigrants" when referring to "citizens of foreign countries who have come to the country with no passport, visa or other document to show that they are entitled to visit, work or live in the United States."

It continues: "The term 'undocumented immigrant' is acceptable as a synonym for 'illegal immigrant' under certain conditions, such as when a form of the word 'illegal' already appears in a sentence."

And that's just how Watanabe used the terms in her opening paragraph:

Scores of students, teachers and other advocates for illegal immigrants are launching rallies, phone drives and petition campaigns this week for what they see as their best hope to win access to public financial aid for undocumented college students.

Other widely used stylebooks agree with the usage. The Associated Press stylebook, which is taught in journalism schools and used across the news industry, has a similar entry. The New York Times stylebook's ruling is more limited, advocating the use of "illegal immigrant" but calling "undocumented" a euphemism.

Reader Sue Martin thought both terms were wrong. She wrote: "Regarding correct English, you refer to these students as illegal 'immigrants.' The correct term is 'aliens.' Writers for the L.A. Times continuously make this mistake."

But the L.A. Times' stylebook doesn’t consider it a mistake. It advises against using the term "alien" unless it's in a direct quote.

The New York Times' stylebook is more explicit. It says that "alien," while technically correct, "often conveys overtones of menace or strangeness."

The L.A. Times' first stylebook, in 1979, did advocate the use of "illegal aliens," calling it "the simplest term." However, by 1995, the ruling had changed to "illegal immigrant."

Assistant Managing Editor Henry Fuhrmann, who leads the newsroom's style committee, said that "illegal immigrant" is "the preferred neutral, unbiased term that will work in almost all uses."

"We do think through these things at length," Fuhrmann said. "We tend to reflect what we're hearing from our sources and our readers."

--Deirdre Edgar

Photo: Students rally in downtown Los Angeles on Aug. 23 in support of AB 131, the California Dream Act. Credit: Genero Molina / Los Angeles Times