Arizona Daily Wildcat Drops ‘Illegal Immigrant’ in Favor of ‘Undocumented’

The Arizona Daily Wildcat will no longer use the term “illegal immigrant” in its news copy when referring to those who are living in this country in violation of the law. Instead, individuals who fit the description will be termed “undocumented.”

The decision by top staff at the University of Arizona student newspaper comes at the conclusion of a roughly two-month process that involved internal newsroom debate and solicitation of readers’ perspectives.  In an excellent write-up explaining the rationale behind the change, Wildcat managing editor and readers’ representative Bethany Barnes mentioned that the style issue seemed especially relevant for the paper “because of Arizona’s proximity to the border and how frequently border security issues come up.”


In the note, headlined “We’re Changing the Way We Talk About Immigrants,” Barnes argues “using ‘undocumented’ isn’t about trying to talk around the issue or dress it up as something it isn’t.  Using ‘undocumented’ is about avoiding characterizing someone’s entire personhood by one civil offense.”

As she writes, “While ‘undocumented’ may not cut to the chase, it doesn’t paint a false picture either.  You wouldn’t call someone who was evicted for not paying rent an illegal renter or someone who double parked an illegal driver. . . . But ‘illegal immigrant’ falsely implies that everyone who is in the country illegally is a criminal. Many of the people who are here illegally are here not because they broke the law, but because they were brought here at a young age. As a student newspaper, that situation undoubtedly rings true for some readers.”

My Take: Bravo on the process leading to this change especially.  The editors grappled with a seemingly worthwhile question in a very responsible way, not rushing and instead carrying out the proper legwork to learn about the related issues and perspectives on both sides.  They have been transparent throughout their decision-making and wisely invited reader interaction at the start.  It’s a model for other papers to follow.


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