A word on words as WMFE covers Florida’s new immigration law
WMFE’s first newsroom-wide multimedia series focusing on immigration rolls out this week. Central Florida Seen and Heard: Immigration Divide explores the impacts of the state’s new immigration law SB 1718 which went into effect at the beginning of July.
The series will focus on the history of immigration in Florida, why supporters say this law is needed, and how it’s affecting all people in our community. WMFE’s vision is to lead the community conversation based on substantiated facts and respect for diverse perspectives. One critical tool we have in journalism to meet those goals is our words.
The WMFE newsroom, like most other professional news organizations, follows stylistic standards set by the Associated Press, an independent, not-for-profit news agency dedicated to factual reporting. In 2013, AP issued a style change in the way it describes people living in a country illegally -- no longer sanctioning the term illegal immigrant. Instead, AP tells journalists to describe the action, such as living in or immigrating to a county illegally.
In addition to the AP Stylebook, WMFE relies on NPR’s Style Guide. Like AP, it instructs journalists to not refer to people or groups as illegal immigrants or aliens. Instead, it guides reporters to use language describing the action (“people who have entered the country illegally”). When describing people, the terms unauthorized or undocumented are acceptable.
The way in which we describe the people we are reporting on in this series is important. Immigration advocates consider language like illegal or alien to be discriminatory. “It's kind of like the bullies making fun of somebody,” said Irene Pons, an immigration attorney and partner at My Orlando Lawyer. “They don't feel like they're part of the American culture, or that they can feel comfortable being here because of the way that they're referred to.”
In meeting our goal of journalism based on substantiated facts and respect for diverse perspectives, WMFE will follow the guidelines set by AP and NPR -- you’ll hear the term undocumented rather than illegal immigrant or other derogatory terms.
“I would love to see them and be heard as human beings and call them the new Americans,” said Pons of media coverage of immigration. “What a great way to have a welcoming opportunity for those that are seeking a better life and to humanize someone's story, and to give them that opportunity to be heard.”
The language of the bill
Governor Ron DeSantis signed SB 1718 into law on May 10. “The legislation I signed today gives Florida the most ambitious anti-illegal immigration laws in the country, fighting back against reckless federal government policies and ensuring the Florida taxpayers are not footing the bill for illegal immigration,” said the Governor. The law went into effect July 1.
The text of the bill uses the term alien 23 times.
“It’s accurate,” said Randy Fine, a Republican member of the Florida House and co-sponsor of his chamber’s version of the bill. “Alien does not just mean someone from another planet. An alien is someone from another country that is in a country illegally.”
A 2021 policy memo from the Department of Justice clarified terminology used by the federal government in its immigration office, replacing the term alien with terms like respondent or migrant and the term illegal alien with undocumented non-U.S. citizen or undocumented individual.
“I want you to think of the insanity of that term,” Fine asked of WMFE’s Talia Blake during an interview for this series. “This is someone who's not a documented or undocumented citizen. Look, the Biden administration can use the ignorant language of stupidity that they want to. In Florida, we're going to describe people as they are.”
Immigration advocates like attorney Irene Pons see the word choice as intentional.
“To me, it's an act of deterrence,” she said. “If we can use language to refer to people that's derogatory, we can use that as a means to deter them and to make them feel less human.”
Language of the law is also leading to confusion in Central Florida’s migrant community. The bill criminalizes the act of transporting an undocumented individual to Florida. With such a new law, there is a level of uncertainty, which brings fear.
“They don't know what's going to happen, right? Nobody really does,” said Pons. “They don't know if people are going to be going out and doing sting operations in the field, or if they're going to get pulled over for a moving violation and then get sent to jail.”
That uncertainty comes from a language barrier, too. Pons said she has a difficult time translating the legal definition knowingly into Spanish. Provisions of the bill criminalize knowingly and willingly transporting an undocumented individual into the state.
“The bill itself says five or more people, and it says knowingly. That word doesn't translate really well to Spanish, you know, it's conoscimiento,” said Pons, which in English translates to knowing someone, like a family member, not an awareness of conducting an illegal act.
The law’s intent is to keep undocumented migrants from entering the state. But the provisions of the law, and lack of understanding and translation of those legal terms, have kept some in this community fearful of driving within the state.
A word on anonymity
During our reporting of this series, WMFE spoke with many people in Central Florida’s migrant community -- some that are living undocumented in this state. In some cases, WMFE’s news director LaToya Dennis has authorized reporters to omit a source’s last name and in some cases use an alias. Anonymity in stories at WMFE is not given out frequently. The Society for Professional Journalism’s Code of Ethics states that organizations “reserve anonymity for sources who may face danger, retribution or other harm, and have information that cannot be obtained elsewhere” and to “explain why anonymity was granted.”
WMFE took into consideration the legal and societal ramifications these sources faced by talking with news media. As we learned in our reporting, immigration is a polarizing subject -- not only does this community face legal consequences for sharing their stories, but they could also face retribution from others in their community.
Words are powerful. They have the power to divide. But they also have the power to help us understand. We hope this series elevates the words and voices of those we spoke with to provide our audience with substantiated facts and diverse perspectives on the issue. We hope it provides the context we need to understand the complexities of our community and the issue of immigration here in Central Florida.