Why does Fox choose to use loaded term “illegals”?

On February 5, Fox News' Fox & Friends aired on-screen text stating, “Estimates: 980,000 illegals living in FL,” continuing a Fox News pattern of using the pejorative and unprofessional term “illegals” to refer to immigrants in the United States without legal status. Prominent journalists' associations have denounced the use of the term “illegals” by the news media, noting that the term “criminaliz[es] the person, not the action,” and “skew[s] the public debate on immigration issues.”

Fox News frequently refers to “illegals” in TV reports, on websites

Fox & Friends: “Estimates: 980,000 illegals living in FL.” The following on-screen text aired during the February 5 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends:


Fox & Friends also repeatedly used the term “illegals” while discussing health care reform on the September 28, 2009, broadcast.

MacCallum repeatedly referred to “illegals.” During the November 6, 2009, edition of Fox News' America's Newsroom, anchor Martha MacCallum repeatedly referred to “illegals” during a discussion of health care reform.

Special Report's Baier referred to “suspected illegals.” During the November 16, 2009, edition of Fox News' Special Report, host Bret Baier stated, “Some agents have been required to pursue suspected illegals on horseback or even on foot in order to avoid disturbing protected lands.”

FoxNews.com: “Amateurs Patrol Nation's Border for Illegals From Comfort of Home.” An April 18, 2008, FoxNews.com headline stated, “Amateurs Patrol Nation's Border for Illegals From Comfort of Home.” Other FoxNews.com headlines have included "Waxman: No Gov't Health Insurance for Illegals" and "Illegals Begin Leaving Arizona as New Law Approaches."

Fox Nation headlines routinely refer to “Illegals.” Headlines posted on Fox Nation include: “Eva Longoria: Don't Block Obamacare by Scapegoating Illegals,” “Is SEIU Funnelling Cash From Illegals Into U.S. Elections?” and “Obamacare Could Cover 1 Million Illegals.”

Journalists have called on media to avoid use of pejorative term “illegals,” which can “skew public debate”

National Association of Hispanic Journalists called for news media to stop use of “illegals” as a noun. In a March 2006 press release, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ), a “2,300-member organization of reporters, editors and other journalists,” stated that it was “particularly troubled with the growing trend of the news media to use the word 'illegals' as a noun, shorthand for 'illegal aliens,' ” adding: “Using the word in this way is grammatically incorrect and crosses the line by criminalizing the person, not the action they are purported to have committed”:

NAHJ is concerned with the increasing use of pejorative terms to describe the estimated 11 million undocumented people living in the United States. NAHJ is particularly troubled with the growing trend of the news media to use the word “illegals” as a noun, shorthand for “illegal aliens”. Using the word in this way is grammatically incorrect and crosses the line by criminalizing the person, not the action they are purported to have committed. NAHJ calls on the media to never use “illegals” in headlines.

Shortening the term in this way also stereotypes undocumented people who are in the United States as having committed a crime. Under current U.S. immigration law, being an undocumented immigrant is not a crime, it is a civil violation. Furthermore, an estimated 40 percent of all undocumented people living in the U.S. are visa overstayers, meaning they did not illegally cross the U.S. border.

Asian American Journalists Association: References to “illegals” can “heighten xenophobia, skew public debate.” The Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) stated in a press release that AAJA “fully supports the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) in calling on the news media to use caution with terminology when referring to undocumented immigrants, workers and laborers.” AAJA further stated:

Any reference to “illegals” or “illegal aliens” can heighten xenophobia, skew public debate on immigration issues, and put the lives and well-being of all non-U.S. citizens (undocumented and documented) in this country at risk by suggesting they are criminals and do not belong in the U.S.

Millions of Asian Americans are directly and indirectly affected by the current immigration debate and AAJA urges the news media not to cast a wide net -- through insensitive labels -- that would dehumanize an entire sector of our society.

National Association of Black Journalists: We need to make sure words “are not loaded.” The National Association of Black Journalists stated in a press release that it supports the “plea that newspapers, television and radio outlets avoid using the term illegal aliens in the context of the current debate, as it is inaccurate and susceptible to misinterpretation.” NABJ added:

The words we use can in fact frame the debate, said NABJ President Bryan Monroe, assistant vice president for news at Knight Ridder, and we all need to make sure those words are not loaded with baggage and off-the-mark. Language does matter. If we cant be accurate, were not doing our jobs.

New York Times' Lawrence Downes: The word “illegal” “pollutes the debate. It blocks solutions.” Downes wrote on October 28, 2007, that “America has a big problem with illegal immigration, but a big part of it stems from the word 'illegal.' It pollutes the debate. It blocks solutions.” Downes further wrote:

Since the word modifies not the crime but the whole person, it goes too far. It spreads, like a stain that cannot wash out. It leaves its target diminished as a human, a lifetime member of a presumptive criminal class. People are often surprised to learn that illegal immigrants have rights. Really? Constitutional rights? But aren't they illegal? Of course they have rights: they have the presumption of innocence and the civil liberties that the Constitution wisely bestows on all people, not just citizens.


Meanwhile, out on the edges of the debate -- edges that are coming closer to the mainstream every day - bigots pour all their loathing of Spanish-speaking people into the word. Rant about “illegals” - call them congenital criminals, lepers, thieves, unclean -- and people will nod and applaud. They will send money to your Web site and heed your calls to deluge lawmakers with phone calls and faxes. Your TV ratings will go way up.

This is not only ugly, it is counterproductive, paralyzing any effort toward immigration reform. Comprehensive legislation in Congress and sensible policies at the state and local level have all been stymied and will be forever, as long as anything positive can be branded as “amnesty for illegals.”

Geoffrey Nunberg: "[T]here are disparaging connotations to the negative prefix in Illegal." Linguist Geoffrey Nunberg stated in an April 11, 2006, commentary for NPR's Fresh Air:

Nowadays, those connotations have led the majority of the mainstream media to steer clear of the word aliens -- “illegal immigrants” tends to be the phrase of choice. But illegal has something more than a technical meaning, too. True, dictionaries define the word simply as “not according to law.” But there are disparaging connotations to the negative prefix in illegal, which is actually just a variant of the prefix in-. Inhuman doesn't mean the same thing as “not human,” and you don't become irreligious simply by not going to church. And you hear the same negative tone in words like insincere, inflexible, and illegitimate. So it isn't surprising that we reserve illegal for conveying strong disapproval. We may talk about illegal drugs, but we don't describe the Porsche 959 as an illegal car, even though it can't legally be driven in the US.

Then too, we don't usually describe law-breakers as being illegal in themselves. Jack Abramoff may have done illegal lobbying, but nobody has called him an illegal lobbyist. And whatever laws Bernie Ebbers and Martha Stewart may have broken, they weren't illegal CEO's.

It's only your immigration status that can qualify you as being an illegal person, or that can earn you the honor of being “an illegal” all by itself.[2] That use of illegal as a noun actually goes back a long ways. The British coined it in the 1930's to describe Jews who entered Palestine without official permission, and it has been used ever since as a way of reducing individuals to their infractions.