Why Are Moderators Continuing To Use This “Racial Slur” In Republican Presidential Debates?

Moderators of Republican presidential debates have repeatedly used the slur “illegal immigrants” to refer to the undocumented immigrant population living in the United States, despite recommendations of Hispanic journalists' advocacy organizations to the contrary and the growing trend among news organizations moving away from use of the term.

During the November 10 Republican presidential debate hosted by Fox Business Network in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, moderator Maria Bartiromo asked candidate Donald Trump what he would do about “the effect that illegal immigrants are having on our economy,” using a term that “many in the Latino community regard as a racial slur" to refer to a significant portion of the nation's population.

Despite recommendations from the Associated Press Stylebook which advises the term “illegal” only be used in reference to an action and not to people, and calls from the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) for the media to stop the use of “illegal immigrants” and similar smear terms like “illegal alien” or “illegals,” the slur has been used by moderators in three out of the four Republican presidential debates to this date. According to Mekahlo Medina, president of NAHJ, “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.”

During the first debate, hosted by Fox News Channel, host Chris Wallace repeatedly used the term “illegal” in reference to immigrants, including when he pressed candidate Jeb Bush on a statement about “illegal immigrants,” and later asked candidate Marco Rubio whether “all of these illegals coming over are criminals.”

In the second debate, hosted by CNN, moderator Jake Tapper referred to undocumented immigrants as “illegal immigrants” while questioning candidate Ben Carson. Tapper's use of the term followed CNN Vice President of Diversity Geraldine Morida's statement -- made in response to the NAHJ petition -- that “the word illegal alone should never be used as a standalone noun to refer to individuals with documented or undocumented immigration status.”

Jorge Ramos set the gold standard for media figures when he pushed back on candidate Donald Trump's use of the word during an August 25 press conference, stating “no human being is illegal.” When moderators introduce the slur, they can effectively close the window of opportunity to pushback on candidates' use of disparaging language.

While many media outlets are moving away from or have banned altogether the use of the “illegal immigrant” slur and substituting it with the more humane term “undocumented immigrant,” Fox has a history of clinging to the disparaging term and praising its use. Neil Cavuto, one of the moderators of the fourth Republican debate, has previously ridiculed concerns that disparaging language could be dehumanizing to immigrants, saying “what's dehumanizing” is “all these people being here illegally.”