Associated Press stylebook removes term "illegal immigrant"

(Seemed like this could go in Everything Else or here, but this seemed like more appropriate location.)


“‘Illegal immigrant’ no more”

The AP Stylebook today is making some changes in how we describe people living in a country illegally.

Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll explains the thinking behind the decision:

The Stylebook no longer sanctions the term “illegal immigrant” or the use of “illegal” to describe a person. Instead, it tells users that “illegal” should describe only an action, such as living in or immigrating to a country illegally.

Why did we make the change?

The discussions on this topic have been wide-ranging and include many people from many walks of life. (Earlier, they led us to reject descriptions such as “undocumented,” despite ardent support from some quarters, because it is not precise. A person may have plenty of documents, just not the ones required for legal residence.)

Those discussions continued even after AP affirmed “illegal immigrant” as the best use, for two reasons.

A number of people felt that “illegal immigrant” was the best choice at the time. They also believed the always-evolving English language might soon yield a different choice and we should stay in the conversation.

Also, we had in other areas been ridding the Stylebook of labels. The new section on mental health issues argues for using credibly sourced diagnoses instead of labels. Saying someone was “diagnosed with schizophrenia” instead of schizophrenic, for example.

And that discussion about labeling people, instead of behavior, led us back to “illegal immigrant” again.

We concluded that to be consistent, we needed to change our guidance.

So we have.

Is this the best way to describe someone in a country without permission? We believe that it is for now. We also believe more evolution is likely down the road.

Will the new guidance make it harder for writers? Perhaps just a bit at first. But while labels may be more facile, they are not accurate.

I suspect now we will hear from some language lovers who will find other labels in the AP Stylebook. We welcome that engagement. Get in touch at [email protected] or, if you are an AP Stylebook Online subscriber, through the “Ask the Editor” page.

Change is a part of AP Style because the English language is constantly evolving, enriched by new words, phrases and uses. Our goal always is to use the most precise and accurate words so that the meaning is clear to any reader anywhere.

The updated entry is being added immediately to the AP Stylebook Online and Manual de Estilo Online de la AP, the new Spanish-language Stylebook. It also will appear in the new print edition and Stylebook Mobile, coming out later in the spring. It reads as follows:

illegal immigration Entering or residing in a country in violation of civil or criminal law. Except in direct quotes essential to the story, use illegal only to refer to an action, not a person: illegal immigration, but not illegal immigrant. Acceptable variations include living in or entering a country illegally or without legal permission.

Except in direct quotations, do not use the terms illegal alien, an illegal, illegals or undocumented.

Do not describe people as violating immigration laws without attribution.

Specify wherever possible how someone entered the country illegally and from where. Crossed the border? Overstayed a visa? What nationality?

People who were brought into the country as children should not be described as having immigrated illegally. For people granted a temporary right to remain in the U.S. under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, use temporary resident status, with details on the program lower in the story.

So they immigrated legally then?

I know, I know, I am an insensitive lout who should be ashamed of myself.

No, they immigrated illegally. They just aren’t an illegal immigrant.

The specific guidance is that “illegal” should be used to describe actions, not actors.

Correct. Labeling someone as an illegal anything permanently because they broke the law once is a bit harsh and tends to frame immigration debates in a skewed way.

Labeling anyone who ever got a DUI even once as an “illegal driver” would be pretty cool though.

No, they immigrated illegally. They just aren’t an illegal immigrant.

What if they only did it once? Then it would apply.

Again, it only applies insofar as getting a DUI makes you an illegal driver, or shoplifting makes you an illegal buyer. It’s weird that we use that terminology in one case but not in any others.

Of course, there are fun semantic games that you can play with the status, that being in the country after you entered illegally is in itself an unlawful act (i.e. just by your location, you are breaking the law). But even then, you could find analogous cases such as whether you’re a illegal listener every time you carry your ipod with pirated music, or only when the initial download occurs.

I fully support this change and I suspect it was in part motivated by the fact that folks on the right have taken to abbreviating “illegal immigrants” as “illegals,” a phrase which I find offensive in the extreme. It’s a classic use of language as a tool to dehumanize a group of people you want to oppress.

This reminds me of a memorable line by Massad Ayoob about avoiding legal minefields after a self-defense shooting:

“Suck one cock and you’re a cocksucker. Tell one lie and you’re a liar.” I guess you could say the courtroom runs on labels. It’s always best to avoid them.

I agree with this change, we should go back to proper terminology - carpetbaggers.

Would it be ok to just call them “criminals”?

If you’re ok with calling anyone who ever committed a crime a criminal, then yes.

If the person is currently continuing to commit a crime, which anyone in a country illegally is doing, then yes, calling them “criminal” present tense is justifiable.

Even assuming that that interpretation is correct (which is debatable), many would argue that the benefit of technical correctness is outweighed by the damage inflicted by the dehumanization and concomitant poisoning of the discussion that comes from using the term “illegal” to describe a person.

Correction: “criminal”

Either way.

Defining a person by a single activity / aspect of their being is generally frowned upon.

From now on, I’m going to call meth dealers “undocumented pharmacists”.

I realize several of you are being intentionally dense about this, but this move will simply lead to immigration violations being covered in the same neutral language routinely used for other violations. For example, if you peruse the obituaries of a man convicted of ten felonies, you will not see the words “illegal” or “criminal” used once. If being convicted of ten felonies does not make a person “illegal” or “criminal” than I see no reason why an accusation of a single immigration offense should result in those terms being used.

This is actually a pretty simple idea, but understanding it requires some modicum of intelligence and sensitivity, so it’s not surprising that the current crop of Qt3 P&R superstars are failing to grok it.

For the sake of argument, that’s more a class thing than anything else. A poor person still might be referred to as a convicted felon. Is “felon” a dog whistle term? I honestly don’t know.

We do need to be careful what domain we’re discussing though, since “felon” is, I believe, a legal term with a specific definition, while “illegal” isn’t.

The AP doesn’t have separate style guides for rich and poor. The obituary of a poor person didn’t use the terms “illegal” or “criminal” either, and only used the term “terrorist” in a quote from the name of a (relevant) book.

I’m not sure what the point is of debating, “for the sake of argument,” whether the use of the term ‘illegal immigrant’ in supposedly neutral news articles is racist or classist. Neither “-ism” should be defended, and the correct answer is almost certainly “both.”