Jose Antonio Vargas Wants to Banish Illegal Immigrants ... from Newspaper Copy

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Journalist-turned-immigration activist Jose Antonio Vargas has a new cause celebre: Discouraging news outlets everywhere from using the word "illegal immigrant" in news articles. The Pulitzer Prize winning reporter who outed himself last year as an illegal immigrant (eesh, sorry!) told an Online News Association conference in San Francisco that his non-profit group Define American will begin monitoring the use of the phrase today with its chief targets being the Associated Press and The New York Times. 

"Right now, my two main targets, and I say that politely, are going to be The New York Times and the Associated Press," he said, noting his preference for the phrase "undocumented worker." "The term dehumanizes and marginalizes the people it seeks to describe. Think of it this way, in what other context do we call someone illegal?"

We asked the AP's media relations director Paul Colford what he thinks about Vargas's complaint and he emphasized that the AP doesn't just go around using the term "illegal" willy nilly:

“Illegal immigrant” had been the preferred term at AP. It ceased being the preferred term last year.

Though we believe the term is acceptable because it reflects a legal reality, we believe, as Mr. Vargas does, that there are alternatives. AP reporters understand that it’s not the only way to refer to individuals in a host of different circumstances.

In the case of a person brought here as a child without permission, the term can be misleading, since the person wasn’t a willing “immigrant” at all. In such a case, we might simply state the situation: He doesn’t have legal permission to live in the United States, since his parents entered the country illegally (or without authorization).

We also reached out to The New York Times but haven't heard back yet. Helpfully, former executive editor Bill Keller discussed the paper's policy on "illegal immigrant" in a blog post last year after he got dinged for using the term "illegals":

I checked the NYT style book, and found the guidance not terribly helpful. The entry is not explicit on “illegals.” It says only this: “Illegal immigrant is the preferred term, rather than the sinister-sounding illegal alien. Do not use the euphemism undocumented.”

As for the AP, it's 2012 style book gives the following instruction:

illegal immigrant: Used to describe someone who has entered a country illegally or who resides in a country in violation of civil or criminal law. Acceptable variations include living in the country without legal permission. Use of these terms, as with any terms implying illegalities, must be based on reliable information about a person's true status. Unless quoting someone, AP does not use the terms illegal alien, an illegal, illegals or the term undocumented.

Click here to watch Vargas's keynote speech from today's conference. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.