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Sept. 23, 2007 | The choice of how to describe immigrants is vital

This is the second of two columns by Edward Schumacher-Matos, who is reviewing Miami Herald coverage of immigration issues.

Is The Miami Herald guilt-ridden with white man's burden, soft on crime or just muddle headed? These are among the questions raised by some readers about what they see as The Herald's squeamishness in writing about . . well, that's the issue. Are they illegal aliens? Undocumented workers? Or as some say in South Texas, just plain wetbacks.

The choice is critical. In the escalating battle over immigration, all sides agree on at least this: words are power. The labels that stick become the prism through which the nation views the issue. This helps determine which side wins. So it is no mistake that a bill offering a path to citizenship for thousands of illegal-immigrant students is titled the "Dream Act" by pro-immigrant forces. Who would deny hopes and the American Dream to youths?

The opponents know verbal tricks of their own. They have managed to turn "amnesty" into a dirty word, given the failure to halt illegal immigration after the last two amnesties. "Illegal alien shamnesty, " says conservative columnist Michelle Malkin. The student bill is "amnesty light."

The effect can be more than political. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich called the fight over illegal immigration "a war here at home" as important as Iraq. Some take such words literally. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that 144 "nativist extremist" organizations have sprung up from nearly none five years ago, including nine classified as hate groups, among them the Ku Klux Klan and Aryan supremacists.

Hispanics, legal and illegal, worry. A national poll by Sergio Bendixen found that 83 percent of Mexican immigrants and 79 percent from Central America believe that discrimination against them is growing. Racial violence may not be far behind. Caught in the middle are the media. My e-mail box has been deluged this past week with readers expressing opinions on the issue.

At one end of the media spectrum, CNN's Lou Dobbs and much of Fox News use the phrase "illegal alien." Hardly surprising. That is the anti-immigrant term. Dobbs and Fox pander to the populist backlash against immigration. But there is a catch. "Illegal alien" is also the term that the government has used for years, and is, if you pull out your dictionary, technically correct.

Most of U.S. journalism, earnest to a fault, often tying itself into knots to be both correct and politically correct, but not wanting to be irresponsible like Gingrich, rejects the word "alien." Iván Román, executive director of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, likened it to being from "outer space, " dehumanized and therefore fair game for discrimination. Instead, most newspapers and television news programs appear to use "illegal immigrant, " the usage set by the Associated Press Stylebook.

Then there is The Herald. "In South Florida, you can't assume to know the legal status of someone, so we need a term that covers all the bases, " Anders Gyllenhaal, the executive editor, told me, noting the dense mix of asylum cases, Cuban privileges, visas and violations. "We understand that as 'undocumented worker' or 'undocumented immigrant, ' " he said. Those also are usages advocated by Hispanic groups, as is "indocumentado, " the word used by El Nuevo Herald and most Spanish media. So it is that in the celebrated case of the Gomez brothers, The Herald and El Nuevo refer to them as "undocumented students" and "estudiantes indocumentados."

In an equally celebrated local case, the Newark Star Ledger and The New York Times referred to a Peruvian allegedly connected to a triple homicide as an "illegal immigrant." The Herald uses the phrase "illegal immigrants" in writing generically about the group. The editorial page has its own policies. It uses "undocumented" in editorials, but leaves columnists to our own usage.

I think that every group has a right to be called what it wants. Within reason. The problem is that reason is in the eyes of the beholder. It also changes with time. "Colored" was the word of choice among African-Americans when I was in high school in South Georgia. Try saying that today.

I grew up with "alien" and have written it myself. But today it offends many, if not most, of my fellow Latinos, and so its usage should be dropped. Some Hispanics can say wetback or cucaracha -- or alien -- if they want, but only if they are Hispanic.

"Undocumented" is too wishy-washy for me. Many of these immigrants have documents. They're just false. The Hispanic journalists group argues that it is not the people who are illegal, but their act. The distinction escapes me. The murderer is not a murderer, just his act is murder. Huh? An illegal immigrant may someday find a way to become legalized. Until he does, he is illegal to the courts and to me, even if I think the law should be changed, which I do.

I first heard "undocumented" years ago in California from groups advocating the disappearance of the border and reconquista. The groups have rightfully disappeared, but the word has stayed, now with a more beneficent than political meaning. It is that meaning, a personal sympathy for illegal immigrants, that drives the popular use of "undocumented" in South Florida, a community that is majority Hispanic.

The Herald cannot ride roughshod over local feelings and usage. I don't agree with journalists who think that ethics require working in a vacuum. That is self-righteous arrogance. The Spanish newspapers I published in Texas used "indocumentado." But a second community of readers find themselves marginalized in The Herald, a paper they see as having a pro-immigrant tilt. The use of "undocumented" is part of that. For the sake of all its readers and for accuracy, I would like to see The Herald go back and forth between the two phrases, as some papers do elsewhere. Solomonic? Perhaps. But the truth is, there is no truth. Or at least no single right answer.

COLUMNIST'S BIO

Edward Schumacher- Matos, a former editor and reporter with The New York Times and Wall Street Journal with extensive experience in Florida and Latin America, will write occasional articles reviewing coverage and other issues involving The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald.

FROM THE EDITOR

If you have a suggestion or concern in the Miami Herald or El Nuevo Herald, please send an e-mail to ombudsman@Miami Herald.com. Edward Schumacher-Matos will write occasional pieces for the papers that take up issues in the news, answer questions from readers and critique how the papers handle topics of significance. His articles will be edited by Editorial Page Editor Joe Oglesby and will run in the Issues & Ideas section.

-- ANDERS GYLLENHAAL, executive editor

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