June 17, 2013

’Illegal,’ ’undocumented,’ ’unauthorized’: News media shift language on immigration

Even with several major news organizations deciding to reduce or ban its use, the term “illegal immigrant” is still the phrase newspapers most often use to describe foreigners living in the United States without proper documentation. But over time, there have been some shifts in the language applied to those at the heart of the immigration debate, as words like “undocumented” or “unauthorized” have begun showing up more frequently.

With Congress now considering a major immigration bill, we compared newspaper language in the period from April 15-29 in 2013 with three other two-week periods—in 1996, 2002 and 2007—when immigration-related legislation was also in the news.

During all four time periods, the term used most frequently in newspapers was “illegal immigrant,” although there was some ebb and flow, according to Pew Research’s LexisNexis search of 19 related terms in almost 9,000 articles. This year, we found the phrase “illegal immigrant” accounted for 49% of the terms examined. It accounted for 30% of the terms in 2007, around the time Congress tried and failed to pass immigration reform. And it represented 62% of terms in 2002 when Congress passed legislation ordering Immigration and Naturalization Service to link their databases together.

This year, several news organizations announced a ban on the term “illegal immigrant,” including The Los Angeles Times and The Associated Press, because they said it lacked precision and broadly labeled a large group. In fact, one former journalist has been campaigning to change the way Americans and newsrooms talk about immigration, specifically urging them to rethink the use of “illegal immigrant.” Generally speaking, the trend is toward a diminishing use of the word “illegal” to describe the people here without proper documentation.

  • The use of “illegal alien,” a term considered insensitive by many, reached its low point in 2013, dropping to 5% of terms used. It had consistently been in double digits in the other periods studied, peaking at 21% in 2007.
  • In general, the newspapers studied have reduced the use of the word “illegal” over time. In 1996, four terms that included “illegal”— “illegal alien,” “illegal immigrant,” “illegal worker” and “illegal migrant”—accounted for 82% of the language. In 2002, that dropped to about three-quarters. In 2007 it was down to 60% and in 2013, the decline continued as those terms were used a combined 57% of the time.
  • Newspapers’ use of “undocumented immigrant” steadily grew from 6% in 1996 to 14% in 2013. The Los Angeles Times and Associated Press recently announced their decisions to stop using that term as well, stating that it also lacked precision.
  • Two other terms that appeared in 2013, albeit at modest levels, are relatively new. The phrase “unauthorized immigrant” was rarely seen prior to 2013, when it made up 3% of the terms used. And “undocumented people” or “undocumented person” grew to 3% in 2013 after being at 1% in 2007.
  1. is a Research Analyst at the Pew Research Center's Journalism Project.

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  1. Ana Ortega1 month ago

    Nice story . My mother was here in the United States for over 25 years recently she left because my grandmother was sick and now she can’t can come back. I’ve been doing everything I possibly can to try to bring her back. I’ve gone to 7 different lawyers and each one of them has turned me down They tell me that right now the law says that only a” spouse or a parent “can claim someone from Mexico. My mother has 7 children here in the untied states my 2 younger brothers had to stop going to high school to take care of her because she is also sick . Can anyone please recommend a good lawyer that might want to take this case . Thank you for taking the time to read this. -Ana Ortega

  2. Elliander Eldridge3 months ago

    Personally, I don’t understand why people are using all of these terms synonymously. There is a difference between an illegal immigrant and an undocumented worker and it’s possible to be one or the other.

    To give a good example, the Bush administration authorized undocumented workers to be hired to clean up after Hurricane Katrina. If the government says you can be in this country to work, you are legal, but at the same time they were never given official documentation or any citizen status. They are legally here, but they are not documented.

    I’ve also heard the term undocumented immigrant, but that makes no sense. Most people who enter this country do so legally as a visitor. We have quite a bit of tourism. The people who enter illegally usually do so because they were previously deported. That means there are documents about these people. They are documented as not being allowed back in. Calling them undocumented makes absolutely no sense. Many more are facing custody battles because when they were deported their children were taken from them and there’s a huge mess with that as well.

    Of course, migrant or immigrant doesn’t make much sense either in many cases where a person is not entering the country for the purpose of living here.

    Anyway, I think those inconsistencies in meaning are the reason why you are never going to have people adopting one new term for it.

  3. Michelle Reardon11 months ago

    Today – January 2, 2015 – a reporter on Fox news referred to illegal aliens as “immigrants” more than one time. It is simply stunning how quickly the press, even the so-called conservative press, accepts the verbiage used by the Left. Now there is no difference whatsoever between legal immigrants and aliens. To be clear, the word alien is not and never was pejorative. The word alien means a person who is not a citizen of the place where they live. It is bad only because we were told to view it as such.

  4. Simon Rios2 years ago

    Nice story, but one question. Was it factored into the algorithm the fact that MANY articles using the term “illegal immigrant” are referencing the term reflexively? This could alter the thrust of this analysis in a major way.

    Perhaps there’s no way to factor this in — but when all the debate about the term dies down, then we will know about what has changed…

  5. Michael Nahra2 years ago

    Undocumented is also not a clear description of the act which has left those in violation of the law. They have either performed a civil offense in not renewing their visa to remain in this country under the law, or committed a crime by entering the country without permission. In a sense we have not only ignored the serious nature of controlling our country over the past decades, we are now afraid of speaking of it in a clear and unbiased nature. If you want to clear up the issue, we need to speak clearly so we define what is at stake. I would like to see one of 2 solutions: either drop the regulations and level the playing field which will reduce the demand for the invasion of our country by those without permission, or secure the border, and properly track all those in this country from a foreign nation. The first is driven by economics while the second is driven by politics.

    1. Elliander Eldridge3 months ago

      For the most part I agree with you, but what about the people who are both undocumented workers and here illegally? What do you call them?

      President Bush signed an executive order allowing undocumented workers to clean up and rebuild from Hurricane Katrina. That’s what is panic population exploded in that region. They are here legally, but they are not documented workers. if you’d still call them illegal, how could that be if our own government authorizes them to be here? that’s why I think we need to keep the terms separate.

  6. Octavio2 years ago

    To make this clear, the right word to use is illegal simply because they are illegally in the USA. Undocumented means at some point they were documented, but they never were documented, so they are just illegal people.

  7. Jim H2 years ago

    I’m glad to see some signs of increasing sense in the newsroom.

    However, when you focus on the “immigrant”, you run the risk of confusing how they came with their current status. Many arrived legally, with documents, but overstayed. I prefer “unauthorized resident.”

    “Illegal” inflates an act to replace a person, with the implicit intent of demonizing the person. Why don’t we call them, oh, bike riders or breathers or something else?

    “Undocumented” diverts attention from status to paperwork. Sure, there are some undocumented who have full rights to reside and work here and just don’t have the papers – but how many is that? A few percent?

    1. Tim K2 years ago

      The term “immigrant” should never be used for illegal aliens or tourists or any other person residing in the country on a temporary basis. Both the dictionary and the USCIS glossary define an “immigrant” as a person who is permanently domiciled. That’s why “alien” is the correct term for a person who is not a citizen or an immigrant. There are both illegal aliens and legal aliens (e.g., a tourist, a guestworker).

      While activists should feel free to use activist terminology like “undocumented” a journalist should not be embracing such terms if he/she doesn’t want to give the impression of taking a position on the issue.

    2. amandalishious1 year ago

      me also

  8. Barnaby Spittle2 years ago

    Interesting information.

    Is it safe to say, then, that many of the newspapers that formerly had been using the phrase “illegal alien” moved over to using the less-offensive “illegal immigrant”? Whereas the newspapers using some other phrase haven’t changed much?

    1. Emily Guskin2 years ago

      I would say not. Several newspapers we examined have been using more specific terms to define individuals instead of using a general term to describe people.

  9. Sareen Gerson2 years ago

    While recognizing the dynamic quality of English as well as the fact that at times it reflects the ups, downs, and shifting political extremes of the general public, nonetheless we must all thank you for this excellent presentation. Good work!