Vargas Responds to New York Times Public Editor's Blessing of 'Illegal Immigrants'

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Activist Jose Antonio Vargas hit a brick wall this morning, as New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan endorsed the newspaper's policy of using the term "illegal immigrant": "It is clear and accurate; it gets its job done in two words that are easily understood," she wrote on her blog. Vargas has been campaigning to get the Times and the Associated Press to drop the term "illegal immigrant" on the grounds that it dehumanizes the millions of people living in the U.S. illegally. "Think of it this way, in what other context do we call someone illegal?" he said last month. Sullivan did think of it that way (they met one-on-one) and she's staying with the term:

Just as “illegal tenant” in a real estate story (another phrase you could have seen in Times articles or headlines) is brief and descriptive, so is “illegal immigrant.” In neither case is there an implication that those described that way necessarily have committed a crime, although in some cases they may have. The Times rightly forbids the expressions “illegals” and “illegal aliens.”

Although Sullivan doesn't have any say in the Times' policy, she's the last resort for readers frustrated with the newspaper's policies. Which means Vargas's campaign to get the AP and The Times to jettison the term has hit a roadblock—both news agencies are sticking with the status quo, though they did advance the discussion and clarify their policies on the subject. We asked Vargas if he's going to set his sights for the myriad other newspapers that use illegal immigrant now that the Times and the AP aren't budging and will update when/if he responds. At present, only a handful of papers don't user the term, such as The Miami Herald, San Antonio Express-News and The Huffington Post.

In a phone call, Vargas said he has no plans to shift targets to other news organizations. "I'm targeting The New York Times and the AP because they're national brands that set the news agenda," he said, noting that newsrooms everywhere should be re-evaluating the term regardless. He went on to express disappointment in Sullivan's rationale for accepting "illegal immigrant" in a statement:

First things first: I appreciate the public editor's openness and willingness to have a conversation about this term--a conversation that, in fact, should happen in newsrooms across America, especially in towns, cities and states that are deeply impacted by this issue. You cannot divorce illegal immigration from the changing demographics of our country.

I am disappointed at her assessment. The headline of the blog, to me, is most revealing: "Readers Won’t Benefit if Times Bans the Term ‘Illegal Immigrant.’" Which readers? Readers who want and need to understand the complex and evolving nature of immigration in America, how an immigrant can be out-of-status one week and have status the next? Readers from immigrant families (Latinos and Asians, particularly) who are likely to personally know someone who is undocumented and is offended that their friends and relatives are continually marginalized and dehumanized? 

For now at least, it appears he'll keep the focus on these two news agencies. However, Vanity Fair may want to stand guard. Toward the end of the phone call, he stole a glance at Twitter and expressed disbelief at a tweet coming from the magazine's account:

"Isn't Vanity Fair supposed to a be a quote unquote liberal magazine?" he said.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.