A few decades ago, it wasn’t unusual for American newspapers to refer to people living in the United States without legal permission as “illegal aliens,” or even “illegals.”
Those terms were criticized as offensive and eventually gave way to “illegal immigrant,” a label that itself was jettisoned by most outlets two years ago, when the Associated Press banned the term from its stylebook in favor of language that more precisely describes a person’s immigration status.
That approach — adopted by The Times in 2013 — seemed to have taken root and defused the criticism in most places. But the local newspaper’s decision to call such immigrants “illegals” has turned idyllic Santa Barbara into an unlikely flashpoint in the nation’s immigration battles.
The News-Press ran the headline “Illegals Line Up for Driver’s Licenses” on Jan. 3, prompting protests and a message painted in red on the wall of the newspaper’s offices. The paper used the term again last Friday in another front page story: “Driving Legal Opens Door to Illegals’ Past.”
News-Press officials have stuck by their choice of language, saying that describing someone living in the country illegally as an “illegal” is accurate, and compared the vandalism on their offices to the deadly attack on the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris.
“We will not give in to the thugs who are attempting to use political correctness as a tool of censorship and a weapon to shut down this newspaper,” News-Press co-publisher Arthur von Wiesenberger wrote on the website of the Minuteman Project, which opposes illegal immigration.
But community groups have denounced the newspaper, calling for an advertising boycott.
“They have a racist perspective and they don’t seem very apologetic about it,” said Savanah Maya, a Santa Barbara City College student and member of People Organizing for the Defense and Equal Rights of Santa Barbara Youth.
The dispute erupted anew Monday, when protesters for and against the newspaper staged dueling rallies in a downtown plaza.
Using the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday as a backdrop for their positions framed as human rights and freedom of speech issues, one side argued that the headline was racist and the other argued that it was an accurate description of immigrants applying for driver’s licenses without having to prove citizenship. The licenses became available under a state law that took effect Jan. 1.
The two sides had limited interaction during the peaceful rallies, which attracted several hundred people. Police put up a temporary fence to separate the groups.
“I respect their right to free speech,” said City Councilwoman Cathy Murillo, who attended the pro-immigrant rally, “but they don’t have to be hateful. It’s like the ‘N-word’ for blacks.”
The rally in support of the News-Press was staged by We the People Rising, a Claremont-based group that favors tough enforcement of laws against illegal immigration.
“They should be allowed to decide the type of language they want to use,” said Robin Hvidston, executive director of We the People Rising. “They have a right to use that word. Where do you stop?”
The News-Press, which began in 1855, has experienced diminished goodwill in the community since 2006, when reporters and editors began departing en masse, citing editorial meddling from billionaire owner and publisher Wendy McCaw.
Don Katich, director of news operations for the News-Press, said Monday that the newspaper has used the word “illegals” for a decade to describe immigrants in the United States without permission, and does not plan on changing its policy despite criticism or financial pressure.
He said that the federal government uses the word online and on official documents, and that a vast majority of people agree that it’s an appropriate term.
“It accurately describes the 800-pound gorilla in this whole story,” Katich said. “People are in this country illegally.… I think that’s why this has tapped a national nerve.”
It also stirred Latinos in Santa Barbara, who are already energized after they defeated a proposed gang injunction last year that they said was discriminatory. Latinos constitute an estimated 38% of the city’s population, the same as the statewide percentage, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In Santa Barbara County, Latinos account for 44% of the population.
People Organizing for the Defense and Equal Rights of Santa Barbara Youth is demanding a retraction and started an online petition to support the boycott, which it vowed to continue if the paper doesn’t respond.
“When I saw that word in the Santa Barbara newspaper, it had so much painful baggage for me,” said Abigail Salazar, 20, a student at UC Santa Barbara who said her mother was deported to Mexico nearly five years ago after being in the United States without legal permission.
“We’re tired of immigrants being portrayed as criminals,” Maya said. “People are not illegal.”
Supporters of We the People Rising carpooled from all over Southern California to participate in the demonstration, waving signs reading “Freedom Starts With Speech” and “If You Are Illegally in This Country, You Are Breaking the Law.”
“The truth is, they’re here illegally, and the truth is sometimes painful,” said Mona Hansen, 53, of nearby Carpinteria.
Steven Frayne of Fullerton added: “The Santa Barbara newspaper is calling it like it is.”
Some locals say that the controversy has put Santa Barbara’s genteel charm in a different light.
“This is a mecca for tourists, it has a reputation for being very sunny and affluent, the American Riviera, but under all that there’s a different reality,” said Melinda Burns, a former News-Press reporter who has lived in the city since 1985 and supports the newspaper critics. “This is sitting over the city like a black cloud.”