Few things in the immigration debate are more controversial than the terms used to describe people in the country illegally.
Not surprisingly, immigration rights activists push for "undocumented immigrants." Enforcement advocates prefer "illegal alien."
We journalists are caught in the middle.
On Monday, a nearly two-hour discussion on the issue at the International Center for Journalist in Washington, D.C., got heated at times as each side charged the other with playing politics and promoting half-truths.
The discussion, led by USA TODAY immigration reporter Emily Bazar, can be watched here.
Rosemary Jenks, director of government relations for NumbersUSA, which advocates for a reduction of immigrants allowed in the country, says the term undocumented immigrant is unclear . Illegal alien, she contends, describes all groups who arrived illegally or who have overstayed their visas.
"It seems to us that the best way to use the terminology is based on what the law says," she said. "Then, you're being very clear about who you're talking about," she said.
But Lisa Navarrete, vice president of The National Council of La Raza, which advocates for immigrant rights, said illegal alien, or especially illegal as a noun, is a pejorative term that dehumanizes and demonizes individuals.
"This is not a legalistic debate, this is a political debate, " she said. And the terms that are used in this debate say more about the speaker than they do the subject. Words matter... We do really have a problem calling a human being illegal. There aren't illegal human beings. They may have committed a criminal act, but they're not illegal. People who speed are not illegal drivers or illegal because they speed."
At the Observer, we do our best to seek the middle ground. We try first to describe that the person has arrived in the country illegally or overstayed a visa, whatever the action, instead of using a specific term. However, because of space requirements, that is often not possible.
So, for Observer reporters, the preferred term is "illegal immigrants." As a synonym we will use the terms undocumented workers or unauthorized as long as its clear we're referring to individuals in the country illegally. We try not to use the words "illegal" or "illegals" as a noun. We also avoid using the term "alien" unless it's in direct quotes.