Protesters Rake Santa Barbara Newspaper for Calling Immigrants “Illegals”

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Santa Barbara News-Press stuffs its online news behind a pay wall, but its headlines are clearly visible and the text of its stories can be read in the print edition. So, when the newspaper ran a story with the headline, “Illegals line up for driver’s licenses,” it touched a lot of raw nerves among people who find that description of undocumented immigrants wrong, if not racist.

Four days after that headline ran, someone spray-painted a message on the building that, “The border is illegal, not the people who cross it.” The defacing came amid protests over the headline, which did not change News-Press policy. They used the “illegals” in another headline Friday.

“The word illegals is demeaning and dehumanizing to Santa Barbara’s Latino community,” Gonzalo Rios, a member of People Organizing for the Defense and Equal Rights of Santa Barbara Youth, told Buzzfeed. News-Press operations editor Don Katich, who said the newspaper has used “illegals” for a decade, said in a statement, “It is an appropriate term in describing someone as ‘illegal’ if they are in this country illegally. When breaking the law becomes the norm, America is no better than other lawless nations.”

Newspapers have anguished over how to address people who enter the country illegally. “Illegal aliens” was de rigueur decades ago, slowly losing favor to less pejorative terms, like “illegal immigrants.” Two years ago, the Associated Press jettisoned that expression and any use of illegal to describe human beings, opting instead for a simple explanation that someone was in the country illegally.

A lot of media, including the Los Angeles Times, followed AP's lead, but others have continued to use “undocumented” as a replacement for “illegal” as an adjective. 

News-Press co-publisher Arthur von Wiesenberger defended the use of “illegals” at the rabid anti-immigrant website run by the Minuteman Project, where “illegal aliens” is still the go-to description. He invoked the name of revolutionary Che Guevara, who's been dead for 48 years, to highlight the threat to free speech posed by the protesters.  

The Santa Barbara newspaper, owned by conservative billionaire Wendy McCaw since she bought it from the New York Times in 2000, has had a running feud with more progressive elements in the community. Five top editors quit in a 2006 dispute with McCaw over her growing interference in day-to-day editorial decisions most publishers leave to newsroom personnel.

Although political disagreements underscored their differences, the final straw was her blocking publication of a drunk-driving conviction of acting-publisher Travis Armstrong. Staffers were also none too pleased when McCaw disciplined some of them out for running the location of a home actor Rob Lowe planned to build.

Although the city of Santa Barbara is an upscale tourist destination, the city's racial makeup is similar to the state as a whole. Around 38% are Latino. The county Latino population is higher at 44%.     

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Amid Outcry, News-Press Is Adamant on Provocative Term for Immigrants (by Amanda Covarrubias, Los Angeles Times)

Protesters, Vandals Target California Newspaper that Used “Illegals” in Headline (by Adolfo Flores, Buzzfeed)

Santa Barbara News-Press Offices Vandalized after Paper Runs Page One "Illegals" Headline (by Jim Romenesko)

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