The Times’ style: ‘Illegal immigrant’ or ‘undocumented immigrant,’ not ‘illegal alien’


Two letter writers this week questioned terms used in reporter Teresa Watanabe’s article, “Activists push Dream Act bill,” Aug. 24.

Reader R.J. Johnson of North Hollywood wrote: “In the lead-in to Teresa Watanabe’s article, the words used are ‘the undocumented.’ But in the actual article, Watanabe uses the phrase ‘illegal immigrants.’ L.A. Times, which is it?”

Reader Sue Martin of Los Angeles wrote: “Regarding correct English, you refer to these students as illegal ‘immigrants.’ The correct term is ‘aliens.’ Writers for the L.A. Times continually make this mistake.”


Deirdre Edgar, The Times’ readers’ representative, responds:

The Times Style and Usage Guide advocates the use of “illegal immigrants” when referring to “citizens of foreign countries who have come to the country with no passport, visa or other document to show that they are entitled to visit, work or live in the United States.”

It continues: “The term ‘undocumented immigrant’ is acceptable as a synonym for ‘illegal immigrant’ under certain conditions, such as when a form of the word ‘illegal’ already appears in a sentence.”

That’s what’s behind the headline writer’s use of “undocumented,” and it’s the way Watanabe used the terms in her opening paragraph:

“Scores of students, teachers and other advocates for illegal immigrants are launching rallies, phone drives and petition campaigns this week for what they see as their best hope to win access to public financial aid for undocumented college students.”

Other widely used stylebooks agree. The Associated Press stylebook, which is taught in journalism schools and used across the news industry, has a similar entry. The New York Times stylebook’s entry is more limited, advocating the use of “illegal immigrant” and calling “undocumented” a euphemism.

As to the use of “alien,” the L.A. Times stylebook advises against it unless it’s in a direct quote. The New York Times stylebook is more explicit. It says “alien,” while technically correct, “often conveys overtones of menace or strangeness.”


The L.A. Times’ 1979 stylebook did advocate the use of “illegal aliens,” calling it “the simplest term.” However, by 1995, the ruling had changed to “illegal immigrant.”

Assistant Managing Editor Henry Fuhrmann, who leads the newsroom’s style committee, said “illegal immigrant” is “the preferred, neutral, unbiased term that will work in almost all uses.”

“We do think through these things at length,” Fuhrmann said. “We tend to reflect what we’re hearing from our sources and our readers.”