Two Questions for a Loaded Term
A while back, a reader wrote to tell me, “I’ve just spent the afternoon in the illegal immigrant wars, and I am beaten.” She wondered what Copyediting’s stand is on using the term in a manuscript.
Illegal immigrant isn’t a term we’ve had to engage with up until now, so I did some research. Here’s what I came up with.
Denotation and Connotation
At its simplest, illegal immigrant refers to someone who is in the US without the proper visas.
Yet the connotation of illegal immigrant does not realistically represent everyone who is here illegally. The Center for Integration & Improvement of Journalism (CIIJ) points out that many illegal immigrants are former students whose visas have expired and who have not returned to their home country.
So while your author might be using illegal immigrant correctly, is the image conveyed the correct one?
A Loaded Term
Even when it’s accurate, though, at this time in the United States, illegal immigrant is a loaded term connected to an important political debate. Some people view the term as neutral; others view it as derogatory. If your audience falls into the latter camp, using illegal immigrant only detracts from your author’s point.
Remember that you edit to help your author successfully get their message to the audience, with your publisher’s interests taken into account.
Ask yourself two simple questions:
- What’s the point of the manuscript?
- Does using illegal immigrant help make the point or detract from it?
If using the term will only distract readers from the author’s message, replace it with a synonym or recast the sentence.
Let’s say you’ve decided illegal immigrant is not the correct term for the manuscript on your desk. What can you replace it with? The CIIJ recommends undocumented worker or undocumented immigrant. Immigrants without legal status is another option, though it is a mouthful. Unauthorized worker has also been suggested, but unauthorized strikes me as being as hairy as illegal rather than an improvement.
One term all the style guides agree to avoid is illegal alien. Maybe I read too much science fiction, but to me, an illegal alien comes from outside our solar system, not outside the US.