The New York Times Refuses To Drop The I-Word (VIDEO)

By Andrea Plaid

You would think that 70,000 people asking for the exact same thing would change someone’s mind, right?

Not if you’re the New York Times.

On April 23, members of Applied Research Center’s Drop The I-Word (DTIW) Campaign (in full disclosure: I work as the campaign’s new manager), its partners, and its supporters gathered at the newspaper’s headquarters in Times Square with the 70,000-strong petition asking the Grey Lady to get with the times and eliminate using the word “illegals” and “illegal immigrant(s)” in its reporting of undocumented immigrants. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, co-founder of partnering organization Define American, and Fernando Chavez, son of the late Cesar Chavez, delivered the petition that was started by Chavez’s widow, Helen, at (another DTIW partner). The petition’s delivery took place on the 20th anniversary of the social-justice activist’s death.

Video activist Jay Smooth captured the action and explains the context of the campaign:

And this is how the New York Times responded after Tuesday’s action:

On Tuesday, The New York Times updated its policies on how it uses the phrase “illegal immigrant” in its coverage. The newspaper did not go as far as The Associated Press, and it will continue to allow the phrase to be used for “someone who enters, lives in or works in the United States without proper legal authorization.” But it encourages reporters and editors to “consider alternatives when appropriate to explain the specific circumstances of the person in question, or to focus on actions.”

Philip B. Corbett, the associate managing editor for standards, who oversees the Times’ style manual, made the announcement on Tuesday shortly after a group staged a protest in front of The New York Times headquarters and delivered more than 70,000 signatures to Jill Abramson, the executive editor of The Times, asking her to end the use of the phrase.

Mr. Corbett said in a statement that editors had spent months deliberating the updated style change. He said he shared these changes “with key reporters and editors over the last couple of weeks.” He said he recognized how sensitive this issue is for readers. The changes announced by Mr. Corbett to the stylebook suggested caution when looking for alternatives to “illegal immigrant.”

“‘Unauthorized’ is also an acceptable description, though it has a bureaucratic tone,” Mr. Corbett said. ” ‘Undocumented’ is the term preferred by many immigrants and their advocates, but it has a flavor of euphemism and should be approached with caution outside quotations.” The stylebook also calls for special care to be taken with those who have a complicated or shifting status, like those brought to the United States as children.

“Advocates on one side of this political debate have called on news organizations to use only the terms they prefer,” Mr. Corbett said. “But we have to make those decisions for journalistic reasons alone, based on what we think best informs our readers on this important topic.” He added: “It’s not our job to take sides.”

However, by continuing to use the i-word, the newspaper is taking sides–the wrong side. Not cool, NYT. Not cool. At. All.

UNITY, the journalist coalition consisting of the Asian American Journalists Association, the Native American Journalists Association, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, feels the same way:

“As journalists and as members of minority groups, we understand better than most people the power of words to degrade and dehumanize those who are considered undesirable, and we urge the Times’ editors to rethink their latest decision regarding the loaded word ‘illegal,’ ” said UNITY President Tom Arviso, Jr.

While we appreciate the Times’ desire to use language that is neutral and unbiased, we strongly believe that using the word “illegal” as an adjective or a noun absolutely takes sides in the immigration debate — by describing people only in terms of their immigration status and ability to live and work in the United States.

This is especially troubling coming from one of the world’s most respected and influential media companies — and in light of the fact that many of these immigrants are ethnic and racial minorities who remain vastly underrepresented in America’s newsrooms.

We urge The New York Times and other media organizations to consider the recommendations of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) to use the word “illegal” only to describe actions, not human beings. Or better yet, confine the word “illegal” to direct quotations, and drop the “I” word entirely.

If you want to urge the Times to get with the times and stop using the i-word–and you have a Twitter account–please cut, paste, and send out this tweet:

.@nytimes drop the i-word completely. #droptheiword


About This Blog

Racialicious is a blog about the intersection of race and pop culture. Check out our daily updates on the latest celebrity gaffes, our no-holds-barred critique of questionable media representations, and of course, the inevitable Keanu Reeves John Cho newsflashes.

Latoya Peterson (DC) is the Owner and Editor (not the Founder!) of Racialicious, Arturo García (San Diego) is the Managing Editor, Andrea Plaid (NYC) is the Associate Editor. You can email us at

The founders of Racialicious are Carmen Sognonvi and Jen Chau. They are no longer with the blog. Carmen now runs Urban Martial Arts with her husband and blogs about local business. Jen can still be found at Swirl or on her personal blog. Please do not send them emails here, they are no longer affiliated with this blog.

Comments on this blog are moderated. Please read our comment moderation policy.

Use the "for:racialicious" tag in to send us tips. See here for detailed instructions.

Interested in writing for us? Check out our submissions guidelines.

Follow Us on Twitter!

Support Racialicious

The Octavia Butler Book Club

The Octavia Butler Book Club
(Click the book for the latest conversation)

Recent Comments

Feminism for Real – Jessica, Latoya, Andrea

Feminism for Real

Yes Means Yes – Latoya

Yes Means Yes

Sex Ed and Youth – Jessica

Youth and Sexual Health


Online Media Legal Network

Recent Posts

Support Racialicious

Older Archives


Written by:

  • J M

    Although we can quibble about how the word ought to be used, I think the issue is how the word actually is used. Would you agree that “illegal immigrant” is used as a pejorative term that has racist and classist force behind it? And if so, shouldn’t it be eliminated from civil discussion as other such terms have been?

  • Esther Choi

    “illegal immigrant” literally implies that the person is illegal. because illegal is an adjective, and immigrant is used to describe the person, and adjectives describe the noun. if you break a traffic law you are not called an illegal driver. and being an immigrant is something much more life-defining than driving a car, often due to economic necessity intertwined w/ us imperialism, so no we don’t get to attach the word illegal to the kind of human being category they have been compelled into.

    • Derek Vandivere

      I disagree. Illegal clearly refers to the person’s immigration status, not the overall person. If I say I’m a good trombonist, that only refers to my horn playing and not my overall moral character. I just don’t see a racist or classist overtone to it (again, unlike just using the word illegal by itself). If there needs to be another term then it should at least be correct – and ‘undocumented’ just misdefines the problem.,

  • Meghan McDonald

    I can’t believe they don’t find the AP’s action compelling enough? WTF?

  • Leah Burns

    I don’t see why “undocumented” is euphemistic. Is that precisely the difference between an immigrant being legal or illegal? Whether they have the proper documents?

    • Sticky Geranium

      I personally use the term undocumented most of the time, but I think it is widely perceived as a euphemism or a term embraced primarily by the pro-migrant left. It’s not a technically accurate term in any particular way: tons of undocumented people have various immigration documents, and they may have been in lawful status at one time or another. So they aren’t exactly UNdocumented. But those documents just don’t amount to current lawful immigration status.
      Also I think the genesis of the term was in opposition to “illegal,” which is why it’s important, but also maybe why it’s perceived as a euphemism.

  • Sticky Geranium

    Yes! This is such a good campaign and you all are doing awesome work. Especially love the last line of that video — eventually NYT will stop using this term, and we are just trying to get them to hurry up. TRUTH.

    Rinku Sen’s interview on Democracy Now was really excellent too. (