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Indybay FeatureRelated Categories: U.S. | Immigrant Rights
Thoughts on the AP's dropping the words "illegal" and "undocumented"
The Associated Press has (thankfully) recently dropped the use of the word "illegal immigrant" from its stylebook. (Amy Goodman explains the "Drop the I-Word" campaign at http://www.democracynow.org/2013/4/4/drop_the_i_word_in_victory) However, AP has also stopped using the term "undocumented," which is currently often used by immigration advocates, in contexts such as "undocumented students," "undocumented migrants," or "undocumented workers". So what to call people do not have valid immigration statuses? Rep. Conyers suggested, "out of status," but that is also imprecise, because it forces the speaker to explain what "status" is.
In Spain, they use the term, "Sin Papeles," just as in France, they use the term, "Sans-Papiers". (Literally, "without papers".) Immigration attorneys use the phrase "out of status," but that's legal jargon -- when we get more precise, we say either "entered without inspection" (more commonly "EWI") or "overstayed a visa" (which usually implies inclusion people who entered with a border-crossing card or on the visa waiver program). More colloquially, for "EWI," one could say, "border-crossers," but of course that is imprecise as well, because everyone crosses a border, whether or not Customs inspects one's passport upon entry. Believe it or not, that distinction on the basis of manner of entry -- that entry-stamp in a passport (even if one has presented that passport to Customs while misrepresenting one's intention to return to one's home country) -- is absolutely crucial, when discussing the kinds of potential legal remedies available to the people in question.
It gets more complex when you talk about asylum (colloquially and imprecisely called "political asylum"). Although someone who lives in a third-country refugee camp due to displacement by war might one day receive a visa to enter the U.S., processing their entry through a sponsoring agency, there is no visa that will allow a refugee (someone fleeing persecution in their home country on the basis of a protected status, such as political opinion or religion) to legally enter the United States in order to seek asylum. Usually, you can't even get on a plane to approach the United States without some kind of fraudulent visa or passport that would allow you entry for some other reason than to seek asylum. Those who do "come clean" and declare their intention to seek asylum as soon as they get to U.S. Customs are rewarded for their honesty with immediate imprisonment (and, at times, "preventative" solitary confinement, and even abuse in custody -- see, e.g. http://articles.latimes.com/2013/mar/28/opinion/la-ed-solitary-confinement-immigrant-detainees-20130328). Literally, U.S. immigration law requires you to "break the law" (that is, to enter without inspection or with fraudulent documents, or to fraudulently misrepresent non-immigrant intent when obtaining a visa or speaking with Immigration and Customs officials) in order to apply for asylum and, if successful, to become "legal".
I had this discussion in Austria, back in 2001, when writing a press release about immigration. The sponsoring organization explained that sometimes people can follow the law to the letter by timely filing all required applications and supporting documentation to remain in valid immigration status, and then they fall out of status due to a bureaucratic error, a misdelivered mailing, or a simple administrative delay. The term we settled on was, "people without valid immigration documents". As with all labels, the key word here is, "PEOPLE".