I saw the headline “Illegal Migrants Dissect Details of Senate Deal” in the New York Times over the weekend, and I wondered if they had a linguistic policy change, as I didn’t remember seeing that phrase “Illegal Migrant” in a headline before, so I did searches of the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and Fox News websites to see which phrases they used most often. The phrases I searched were “undocumented workers”, “undocumented migrants”, “illegal migrants”, “illegal immigrants”, and “illegal aliens”.

The New York Times
“undocumented workers” revealed 34 usages (in the past year)
“undocumented migrants” revealed 2 usages (in the past year), including 1 in an article entitled “Illegal Immigrants Slain in an Attack in Arizona”
“illegal migrants” revealed 16 usages (in the past year), though 6 of those usages were about situations in Europe, having nothing to do with the United States
“illegal immigrants” revealed 549 usages (in the past year), and is obviously the phrase of choice for the Times.
“illegal aliens” revealed 43 usages in the past year, including at least 13 times when they were quoting someone (for instance, “a fiesta for illegal aliens and homosexuals”—that could be an interesting title for something—someone grab it and run and report back with a poem)
Los Angeles Times
“undocumented workers”: 58 usages (over the past year)
“undocumented migrants”: 8 usages (over the past year)
“illegal migrants”: 26 usages (over the past year)
“illegal immigrants”: 639 usages (over the past year)
“illegal aliens”: 57 usages (over the past year)
The Washington Post (the search engine only covered the last 60 days)
“undocumented workers”: 27 usages (over the past 60 days)
“undocumented migrants”: 0 usages (over the past 60 days)
“illegal migrants”: 8 usages (over the past 60 days)
“illegal immigrants”: 232 usages (over the past 60 days)
“illegal aliens”: 20 usages (over the past 60 days)
Fox News (it was unclear as to how much time the search covered. also the Fox News search included both articles created by Fox News as well as articles that came in via wire services)
“undocumented workers”: 152 usages
“undocumented migrants” : 30 usages
“illegal migrants”: 73 usages
“illegal immigrants”: 1180 usages
“illegal aliens”: 886 usages

Originally Published: May 21st, 2007

Jeffrey McDaniel is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Chapel of Inadvertent Joy (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013). Other books include The Endarkenment (Pittsburgh, 2008), The Splinter Factory (Manic D, 2002), The Forgiveness Parade (Manic D Press, 1998), and Alibi School (Manic D, 1995). His poems have...