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.