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Brian Rooney Headshot

Truth in Labelling

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Sometimes in language you need a handy label that lets everyone know what you are talking about. "Liberal" and "conservative" have been useful although somewhat broad in discussing politics. "Man" and "Woman" are good for obvious reasons. "Insider trading" works for financial crooks. And the term "illegal immigrant" fits as a description for people who have come into the country illegally.

But the Associated Press, one of the world's largest news outlets, announced that it would no longer use "illegal immigrant" in its copy. A directive from AP bosses said the word "illegal" should be used only to describe an action, not a person. "Illegal immigration," but never "illegal immigrant".

The term has been under fire for years by immigration advocates as inaccurate and dehumanizing. It's been popular to ask the sloganized question, "How can a person be illegal?" Admittedly it's a linguistic mash-up because "illegal" refers to the method not the person. Labels are often inaccurate but in fewer words they encompass enough truth for people to understand the meaning.

A lot of people use language to soften the blow of truth. They say, "passed away" instead of "died." Passed away? Really, where did he go? People don't pass away, they die. The gauzier term paints a Thomas Kinkade glow on death.

Some language changes do bring a touch of kindness. "Disabled" has replaced "crippled" and "developmentally disabled" is what we once knew as "retarded." Both are nicer but less precise. The cloying "special needs" was introduced to soft peddle everything from mental and physical disabilities to people who want to order different food on an airplane.

Language changes are often politically driven. Soon after the 1992 Los Angeles riots some people tried to re-label it an "uprising" as if emptying out the local Payless shoe store was a political act. It happened in an area of the city originally known as Watts, which became "South Central" after the '60s Watts Riots. After 1992 "South Central" was re-named "South Los Angeles" as though changing the name again would eliminate the area's problems.

Sometimes language just needs to be a blunt instrument. As Archie Bunker once said to his hippie son-in-law Meathead, "Anyone who lives in a commune is a commun-ist."

In the case of immigration what's happening is an effort to fudge the difference between people who enter the country legally and those who don't. It's a smart political tactic for immigration advocates to describe illegal immigrants as people who just haven't filled out the proper papers. Hey, they're a little behind on their homework, that's all. Removing the label gives them a better shot at citizenship.

Journalists shouldn't fall for it. They should clarify the distinction and let voters make the decisions. The public needs more truth, not less. Changing "illegal immigrant" to "undocumented" or anything else is like calling a subway fare jumper an "un-ticketed passenger."

Interestingly, the Associated Press does not offer a replacement for the term it would eradicate. So how should we put it? America has 12 million... choose one of the following... non-permitted, uninvited, less-documented, unaccounted-for, amnesty-eligible immigrants. The truth is we have12 million immigrants who came here illegally and the question is not what to call them, but what to do about them.