Chicago Tribune doubles down on false claim that ‘illegal alien’ not a legal term

Chicago Tribune doubles down on false claim that ‘illegal alien’ not a legal term
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Earlier, the Chicago Tribune was criticized by readers because it falsely claimed that the term illegal alien isn’t “used in statutes and in legal circles.” It approvingly a quoted a professor wrongly claiming “The term illegal alien isn’t a term that comes up in our laws,” in discussing New York City’s threat to fine people up to $250,000 for using the word “illegal alien” in workplaces, rental housing, or public accommodations.

But “illegal alien” is a term that comes up again and again in federal and state laws and regulations. Two examples of laws using the words “illegal alien” are 8 USC 1365 and 6 USC 240.

In response, the Tribune thumbed its nose at those readers. It reposted the article prominently on its web site, so that a fresh crop of readers could read it and be deceived by it. “The quote claiming that ‘illegal alien isn’t a term that comes up in our laws’ is still there,” notes Ramesh Ponnuru of the National Review. That ensures that any unsophisticated reader of the Tribune story (and probably most readers) will be fooled into thinking no laws actually contain the words “illegal alien.”

At the same time, it added the word “frequently” before the words “used in statutes and legal circles.” The word “frequently” will only be noticed by an unusually careful reader like a lawyer. But by putting it there, the Tribune can claim to sophisticated readers who complain about its article that it is not denying that some isolated law somewhere does use the term “illegal alien.” (Many lawyers have come across at least one law that uses the words “illegal alien,” but most don’t know just how many such laws there are).

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Of course, the readers of the original article posted on October 4 won’t even notice this one-word change, both because it is buried deep in the article, and because it wasn’t even made until October 9, when the article was revised and reposted. Such readers may continue to falsely believe, based on the earlier article, that no law uses the term “illegal alien.”

Moreover, it is simply not true that the term “illegal alien” is not used “frequently” in legal circles, as the Tribune now claims. The Justice Department frequently uses the term in its court briefs, as do other litigants. It is used in Supreme Court decisions, such as Arizona v. United States, and lower court rulings, such as Texas v. United States. Lawyer John Hinderaker made this point yesterday at Powerline.

The Tribune clings to its false claim partly so that it can continue to cheerlead for New York City’s controversial “immigration guidance.” That guidance restricts the use of the term “illegal alien” in workplaces, housing, and public accommodations, threatening those who use it with $250,000 fines. Legal scholars have criticized such restrictions as a violation of the First Amendment, with one of their objections being that “illegal alien” is simply legally accurate terminology.

It is easier to defend such restrictions by claiming that “illegal alien” is not a legal term, but rather a “pejorative” term not used by lawyers or statutes. So the Tribune made that false claim in its article.

Lawyers such as the Heritage Foundation’s Hans Von Spakovsky objected to New York City’s restriction on using the term “illegal alien” because “illegal alien” is legal terminology found in laws, court decisions, and court briefs filed by Justice Department lawyers.

The Tribune article is very one-sided. Many lawyers have objected to New York City’s restrictions on speech about illegal aliens as being “unconstitutional.” One of them is a progressive lawyer who has “dedicated” his “career to fighting the deportation of immigrants.” But the Tribune does not mention that, or cite any of them.

Instead, the Tribune’s Cindy Dampier quoted only supporters of the speech restrictions. That included a progressive law professor’s claim that restricting people from saying “illegal alien” was a “reaffirmation that New York City is a welcoming place” that got “positive feedback.” The Tribune misleadingly suggests that objections to the speech restrictions came only from “social media commenters” — which moderate or liberal readers may interpret as a reference to right-wing trolls on Facebook and Twitter.

Jerome Woehrle

Jerome Woehrle

Jerome Woehrle is a retired attorney and author, who writes about politics.