Activists protest New York Times for using the term ‘illegal immigrant’

Patrick Howley Political Reporter
Font Size:

Progressive activists demonstrated outside New York Times headquarters on 8th Avenue in Manhattan Tuesday to protest the newspaper’s continuing use of the term “illegal immigrant” to describe persons who have immigrated illegally to this country.

While the Associated Press notably announced this month that it would replace the term “illegal immigrant” in its stylebook, The New York Times has so far not followed that policy.

“Soon after the election, late last fall, MoveOn.org began a petition drive focused on the New York Times that was started by Helen Chavez, Cesar Chavez’s widow,” Rinku Sen, president of the Applied Research Center and one of the protest organizers, told The Daily Caller.

The New York Times allowed Vargas and a handfull of activists to deliver the petition. Photo tweeted by Rebekah Spicuglia.

The New York Times allowed Vargas and a handfull of activists to deliver the petition. Photo tweeted by Rebekah Spicuglia.

“All these years, I chose to stay in the background. I walked picket lines, managed our credit union, and took care of our eight children. Cesar respected my privacy. I never spoke in public or did an interview with a reporter. But I’m speaking out now to say: stop using the word ‘illegal’ to describe human beings,” Helen Chavez said in a statement Tuesday, the twentieth anniversary of her labor leader husband’s death.

Cesar Chavez, for his part, once used the term “illegal alien” in Senate testimony in 1979.

“It is apparent that when the farm workers strike and their strike is successful, the employers go to Mexico and have unlimited, unrestricted use of illegal alien strikebreakers to break the strike,” Chavez said.

Cesar Chavez’s son, Fernando Chavez, and Jose Antonio Vargas, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who “outed” himself as an “undocumented” immigrant in a June 2011 New York Times magazine essay, delivered the petitions to Times headquarters Tuesday afternoon, joined by activists from various organizations including MoveOn.org. Vargas has been challenging news outlets to amend their stylebooks with respect to the phrase “illegal immigrant” for nearly two years.

“It took three years to get outlets like the AP to stop using that particular phrase,” Sen told TheDC. “The New York Times is clearly a national journalistic leader. Many people think it’s the country’s newspaper of record. They cover immigration issues frequently. I actually can’t speculate as to why it is that they haven’t changed yet. They said that they have found the term historically accurate.”

“When you see Republican commentators and mainstream commentators on both the left and the right changing their language, you have to ask why The New York Times is still using language that is not only grammatically incorrect but also offensive to so many people,” Presente.org executive director and protest organizer Arturo Carmona told TheDC.

Times public editor Margaret Sullivan wrote this month that the Times is considering its own moderate phasing-out of the “illegal immigrant” term, but so far that phasing-out has not begun.

“From what I can gather, The Times’s changes will not be nearly as sweeping as The A.P.’s,” Sullivan wrote April 2. “I would be surprised to see The Times ban the use of ‘illegal immigrant,’ as The A.P. has done. The Times’s changes will probably be more incremental.”

“It’s good to see these moves taking place,” Sullivan added. “Language evolves and it’s time for these changes. Early in my tenure as public editor, I considered this question and came down in favor of the continued use of ‘illegal immigrant,’ because it was a clear and easily understandable term. My position on this has changed over the past several months.”

Carmona said that he does not view his protest against the Times as a threat to free speech.

“Since the civil rights movement and the women’s rights movements, we’ve seen a tradition of [activists] helping language to evolve,” Carmona said. “The language has evolved. So why can’t The New York Times get with the times?”

Follow Patrick on Twitter