DOJ Sends Email to Press Offices With Instructions on How to Refer to Aliens in Official Press Releases

Alexander J. Segal's picture

On July 24, 2018, CNN reported [link]1 that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has instructed U.S. Attorney's offices to not use the term “`undocumented' immigrants.” CNN included the guidance with the article [PDF version]. Although the CNN report does not specify the scope of the guidance until the penultimate passage of the article, the original document in fact applies to terminology used in press releases issued by U.S. Attorney's Offices. In this post, I will briefly examine the DOJ guidance posted by CNN.

The DOJ email instructs U.S. Attorney's offices to follow the definitions in section 101 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) when describing immigration status in press releases.

In cases where a defendant's illegal presence in the United States is an established fact in the public record or was provided to the court to determine whether to detain the defendant, the press release should refer to the defendant as an “illegal alien”;
If the alien is legally present in the United States or if his or her status is unknown, unclear, or absent from the public record at the time a press release is being issued, the alien should be described with his or her country of citizenship;
If the individual is an alien lawfully admitted for permanent residence or a U.S. citizen, the individual should be described as a resident, but the individual's citizenship or legal status may be included if it is part of the established factual record.

Notably, the email states unequivocally that aliens should never be described as “undocumented” in press releases. The email explains that the term “undocumented” shows up nowhere in the United States Code. Accordingly, DOJ press offices have been instructed to not use the term to describe an alien's illegal presence.

The DOJ's guidance is grounded in the U.S. Code and is noteworthy in that many prominent media outlets, including CNN, rely upon the Associated Press Stylebook, which uses the term “undocumented immigrants” for aliens who are in the United States illegally despite this term having no basis in the U.S. immigration laws. I discussed this issue in a separate opinion blog post.

When reached for comment by CNN, a DOJ spokesman did not dispute the authenticity of the email. The spokesman referred to the email itself to explain that it its purpose is to seek consistency in the language used in press releases and to avoid confusion.


  1. Kopan, Tal. “Justice Department: Use 'illegal aliens,' not 'undocumented.'” CNN. Jul. 24, 2018.
DOJ Sends Email to Press Offices With Instructions on How to Refer to Aliens in Official Press Releases