The National Association of Hispanic Journalists writes:
As the heated debates over health care and immigration reform collide, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists calls on our nation’s news media to stop using the dehumanizing term “illegals” as a noun to refer to undocumented immigrants.
NAHJ has long advocated for accurate terminology in news media’s coverage of immigration. NAHJ is concerned with the increasing use of pejorative terms like “illegals” – which is shorthand for “illegal aliens”, another term NAHJ objects to using – to describe the estimated 12 million undocumented people living in the United States.
Using "illegals" in this way is grammatically incorrect and crosses the line by dehumanizing and criminalizing the person, not the action they are purported to have committed. NAHJ calls on the media to never use “illegals” in headlines and in television news crawls.
“We continue to see ‘illegals’ used as a noun seeping from the fringes into the mainstream media, and in turn, into the mainstream political dialogue,” said NAHJ Executive Director Iván Román. “Using these terms not only distorts the debate, but it takes away their identities as individuals and human beings. When journalists do that, it’s that much easier to treat them unfairly and not give them an equal voice in the controversy.”
By incessantly using metaphors like “illegals”, the news media is not only appropriating the rhetoric used by people on a particular side of the issue, but also the implication of something criminal or worthy of suspicion. That helps to predetermine the credibility or respect given to one of the protagonists of this debate, which is not conducive to good journalism and does a disservice to the principles of fairness and neutrality.
In addition, NAHJ has always denounced the use of the degrading terms “alien” and “illegal alien” to describe undocumented immigrants because it casts them as adverse, strange beings, inhuman outsiders who come to the U.S. with questionable motivations. “Aliens” is a bureaucratic term that should be avoided unless used in a quote.
NAHJ prefers using the term "undocumented immigrant" or "undocumented worker" rather than the term "illegal immigrant" which several media outlets have adopted.
NAHJ also calls on editors and journalists to follow generally accepted guidelines regarding race and ethnicity and refrain from reporting a person’s legal status unless it is relevant to the story in question. The public in certain regions of the country have pressured news media to publish the legal status of any Latino who appears in the newspaper or on television, regardless of the story’s subject.
Doing so contributes to the growing trend of profiling Latinos as non-Americans or foreigners and using them as scapegoats for a variety of society’s ills, a tone that has become more pervasive in the public dialogue over the past few years. Few now doubt that this helps create a fertile environment for hate speech which we have seen can lead to discrimination and a growing number of hate crimes in the U.S. against Latinos.
As the U.S. tackles immigration reform in the future, NAHJ believes that responsible, fair, and non-simplistic coverage of this complex issue is in order. The words used can be part of the problem or can contribute to fair coverage and a fruitful public debate.
NAHJ, a 1,500-member organization of reporters, editors and other journalists, addresses the use of these words and phrases by the news media in its Resource Guide for Journalists. For excerpts of some of the relevant entries in the resource guide, click here.
Of course there's nothing "grammatically incorrect" about using "illegal" as a noun; adjectives often double as nouns, often with "the" ("the poor," "the rich," "the dead") and sometimes without a "the" ("Americans"). Dictionaries, including the Oxford English Dictionary, list "illegal" as a noun, though the Random House lists it as an informal usage.
Nor is "undocumented immigrant" or "undocumented worker" somehow more "fair" than "illegal alien." Illegal aliens' problem — perhaps it shouldn't be a problem, but it certainly is a problem for them — isn't just that they somehow lack documents. It's that they lack the legal right to be here. One can debate whether they should have the right to be here, but the fact is that under the current legal system their being here is not legal. Someone who owns a gun without a registration required by state law, because state law bars him from getting such a registration (because he's underage or a felon or what have you) isn't just an "undocumented gun owner." He's an illegal gun owner, and identifying him as such better expresses the reality of the situation, even if you think that the law should be different.
This leaves the question of whether the terms are unduly pejorative, in much the way that "abortionist" is unduly pejorative, to the point that using the term this way is unnecessarily argumentative, and distracting and credibility-reducing in an objective article. I'm actually inclined, based on my sense of how the term is used, to think that the noun "illegal" is, which is why I generally don't say "illegals." But that's in large part because there is an alternative that is not deliberately obfuscatory, and commonly used as simply descriptive — "illegal alien" (or, for "abortionist," "abortion provider").
As between "illegal alien" and "undocumented immigrant," it strikes me that the former is more reflective of what is actually going on, for better or worse, and the latter is an attempt to hide what is actually going on. If one is writing political advocacy, one may deliberately choose the latter term (though even then one risks losing credibility). But if one is trying to be an objective journalist, I think "illegal alien" or "illegal immigrant" is the more objective and more candid way of putting things.