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Sunday, May 7, 2006 - Page updated at 04:15 PM


Mike Fancher

Newspaper wrestles with issue of immigration, just as U.S. does

Seattle Times executive editor

Words matter, especially with an issue as contentious as immigration.

If you wonder about that, consider the following polar-opposite views expressed by Seattle Times readers with pointed views on the topic. Reader No. 1: "The write-ups that you're giving the illegal aliens in this country, you're covering for them. ... I've been watching the papers every day and your articles are always slanted in favor of illegal immigrants although you call them immigrants and you don't mention illegal. I think that's pretty lousy and I'm going to cancel my subscription."

She says what's happening is an "illegal invasion" and labeling it immigration is "wrong, wrong, wrong."

Reader No. 2: "It is no longer politically correct to refer to immigrants without documents as 'illegal.' The politically correct term is 'undocumented.' The term 'illegal immigrant' or 'legal,' which was used in your article in two instances, is derogatory and demeaning. Remember, no person is illegal, only undocumented."

Executive News Editor Mike Stanton answers that our policy isn't intended to be politically correct or supportive of any side in the debate. Instead, our aim is to use terms that are accurate, impartial and fair.

"We do not use the terms most offensive to people who have come into this country without going through the immigration process, or to those who advocate for them," Stanton said.

"Some people want us to use 'illegal aliens,' because 'aliens' is the actual term in the law. But 'aliens' today has the connotation of creatures from outer space. It sounds dehumanizing, so we don't use it," he added.

We also avoid using "illegals" as a noun, as in "12 illegals caught in Yakima cannery," even though the dictionary regards it as an appropriate use. "It, too, sounds dehumanizing, as if illegality were the essence of the person, so we avoid it," Stanton explained.

We do, however, use the terms "illegal immigration" and "illegal immigrant," as well as "undocumented" in some cases, especially those that refer to the workplace. We believe "illegal" is accurate, impartial and fair.

"Illegal does not mean criminal, it simply means unlawful, not authorized or sanctioned, against the rules," Stanton said. "Illegal immigration is not a crime, but rather a civil infraction. But I don't think anyone can say that someone who comes to this country without going through the immigration process has come here lawfully."

I suspect that readers with fixed opinions on the issue won't find much to like in our policy. The more rigid their position, the less likely they are to accept any labels but the ones that support their conviction.

"People who want us to use terms like 'aliens' and refer to people as 'illegals' seem to want us to make these people sound as bad as possible," Stanton observed.

"People who want us to use 'undocumented' instead of 'illegal' in every case seem to want us to mask the question of legality. But for many people, that's the most important aspect of this issue. For them, it's not a matter of whether immigrants are carrying some documents, but whether they are here legally or illegally," he added.

In quoting people, we allow them to use the terms they prefer. The purpose of our policy is to regulate the language we use, not to censor the people we quote on the issue.

Stanton concludes, "We recognize that this is a powerful, difficult and emotional issue for many people, and that we can't please everyone. But we'll continue to do everything we can to be accurate, impartial and fair as the nation struggles with it."

One Day in Seattle

Visitors from out of town will start showing up any day now. What to do?

Today's Travel section offers "One Day in Seattle," which is loaded with ideas from the staff of The Times. Page 2 of the section tells how you can share your ideas, as well.

In print and online, The Times is a constant source of information for making the most of living here. Be sure to regularly check "Northwest Weekend" in the Thursday Times and "Ticket" on Friday.

Online, you can go to the entertainment and travel channels on seattletimes.comand to Northwest Source (, where the motto is: "We find it. You do it."

Inside The Times appears in the Sunday Seattle Times. If you have a comment on news coverage, write to Michael R. Fancher, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111, call 206-464-3310 or send e-mail to More columns at

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company



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