Flickr/ Jeff Djevdet

Immigration is such a contentious issue that readers can often tell the position of a journalist or media outlet on the issue in the first few sentences of an article. From illegal alien to undocumented migrant, there are a variety of words used to describe immigration that portray media bias.

AllSides analyzed 100 articles from outlets across the AllSides Media Bias Chart™ on immigration. Their word choice and stylization on the issue of immigration demonstrated the opinions of the left and right on the topic.

Words News Outlets Use to Describe Immigration

News outlets used different terms to describe people crossing the southern border of the United States. Outlets on the right were far more likely to describe people as “illegal” — in fact all outlets from the right side used the term — while outlets on the left more commonly used the term “undocumented.Alien” was also a term used predominantly on the right, and “migrant” was used more often in articles from outlets on the left. “Refugee” was used more on the left. 

AllSides analyzed outlets that used each respective word at least once across five stories about immigration to the United States from the southern border. All stories were from 2023.

AllSides analyzed 100 articles from outlets on the AllSides Media Bias Chart™. We selected five outlets from each of the Lean Left, Left, Lean Right, and Right categories. We looked at five articles from those outlets that mentioned immigration; three articles were about immigration in general, one was about immigrants being sent to blue states/cities, and one was about the end of Title 42.

The percentage of words used in each outlet in the analysis are as follows:


Notably, some outlets bucked the trends. 

Slate (Left bias), which primarily publishes opinion pieces, used the terms immigrant and migrant as well as illegal and undocumented, but did use the term refugee the most of any outlet. The Daily Beast (Left bias) used the terms immigrant, migrant, and illegal, contrary to other outlets on the left, by describing unauthorized immigrants as “illegal crossers,” a term not seen used by other outlets analyzed. The Washington Post (Lean Left bias) also used the term illegal in its coverage, sometimes – though sparingly – describing immigrants as “illegal immigrants.

The Washington Examiner (Lean Right bias) and The Post Millennial (Lean Right bias) both used the words undocumented, though they used the word illegal far more.

A Look At How the Left and Right Cover Immigration

Across the political spectrum, media outlets used the issue of immigration to display bias in their headlines about the topic. 

Here’s a snapshot of a few selected headlines from the left that were part of the analysis:

The framing of headlines on the left make their bias clear by implying that Trump is making false claims, that we need to get out of the “Trump Era,” and that DeSantis is writing “extreme” policies and targeting children.

Left-rated outlets tended to use word choice to make a point of which politicians were “bad.” Some Lean Left-rated outlets did the same – see Washington Post’s (Lean Left bias) headline “How Gov. Ron DeSantis deploys state police to enforce political agenda” and TIME (Lean Left bias) Biden's Rightward Shift on Immigration Draws Comparisons to Trump” – but more often, Lean Left outlets focused on the plight of immigrants:

While it is not wrong to cover the challenges and difficulties immigrants face, covering that much more often than cities being overwhelmed by immigrants during the same time period is an example of story choice bias.

Lean Right-rated outlets occasionally painted Biden as an enemy, with headlines like The Epoch Times’ (Lean Right bias)Florida AG Scores Win in Court Battle With Biden Administration Over Border Crisis.” Lean Right outlets also emphasized the surge of illegal immigrants at the border far more than outlets on the left:

Emphasizing the legal status of unauthorized immigrants and the amount of them makes the issue seem more dire and justifies stricter policies. 

Like Lean Right outlets, Right-rated outlets focused on the number of unauthorized immigrants entering the country: “Biden’s Countdown to End Title 42: Nearly 400K Migrants May Arrive at Southern Border Every Month,” “Border App Releases Almost 80,000 Foreign Nationals Into U.S. In Last Four Months,” “Nearly 300,000 illegal immigrants slipped past border agents in less than four months: sources,” and “2M Immigrants Released Into US 'Here Indefinitely.’

But, like Left-rated outlets, some of the headlines had more overtly political wording:

Right-rated outlets, in these headlines, invoked bias by implying Biden was the “bad guy” similarly to how Left-rated outlets addressed Trump and DeSantis.

Read more about immigration on AllSides.

Blog written by Andrew Weinzierl & Clare Ashcraft. Andrew is the Bias Research Manager & Data Journalist at AllSides. He has a Lean Left bias. Clare is the Bridging & Bias Specialist at AllSides and has a Center bias. Research in part conducted by AllSides’ Research & Content Intern, Mike Guo (Lean Left).

Reviewed by Editor-in-chief Henry A. Brechter (Center bias), News Editor Joseph Ratliff (Lean Left bias), and Director of Marketing and Media Bias Ratings Julie Mastrine (Lean Right bias).