The AP's Ban on 'Illegal Immigrant' Will Change How We Talk About Immigration

That faint sound you hear is Senate reporters from the AP, The New York Times, and beyond smacking their delete keys, rethinking their agenda setting aloud, and figuring out how we talk now, amidst a serious legislative discussion

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Starting now, you will never see the "lazy" words "illegal immigrant" in another AP story unless they're quoting someone important saying it. That faint sound you hear is Senate reporters from the AP, The New York Times, and beyond smacking their delete keys, rethinking their agenda setting aloud, and figuring out how we talk now, amidst a serious legislative discussion, about the millions of illegal immigrants people living in the U.S. without legal permission. AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll explains the timely style change:

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.

For immigration reform advocates, of course, this is a clear win. Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist who entered the country when he was 12-years-old and does not have legal permission to live in the United States, had pushed the news organization to change its definition back in September. "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?" Vargas asked at the Online News Association's conference. "Being in a country without proper documents is a civil offense, not a criminal one."

The AP's decision also comes as Senators are putting the final touches on a bi-partisan plan for immigration reform, which will no doubt test the nuance and specificity of reporters — at the AP and elsewhere — who tend to be in a rush, even on such a weighty topic. Indeed, there's also a shift on a bigger level here: If an organization as big and influential as the AP is changing the way it uses words, will it perhaps pull or push other publications to strike that phrase?

It turns out that The New York Times, which was also pushed by Vargas to drop the term, is now reconsidering its use. "From what I can gather, The Times's changes will not be nearly as sweeping as The A.P.'s," reports the Gray Lady's public editor, Margaret Sullivan in a blog post today. Sullivan didn't reveal the full scope of the Times impending move, but Sullivan explains the change — which will be introduced to staffers sometime this week — will push journalists to be more specific:

It will "provide more nuance and options" for what term to use, said Philip B. Corbett, associate managing editor for standards. In the past, for example, the term "undocumented" has practically been banned as a euphemism. That position is very likely to be softened in the revision, and other ways of describing those who are in the United States without proper legal documentation probably will be allowed and encouraged.

The Times and the AP are not dictionaries, but they still, by way of their influential readership, could shape the way people use the phrase — or don't — and change conversations people have about the topic. The stricken phrase, as the AP's Carroll explained to Poynter, "ends up pigeonholing people or creating long descriptive titles where you use some main event in someone’s life to become the modifier before their name." She added that the use was a "lazy device."

That's understandable. We'd hate to have one event in our lifetime determine the way we're described in one article for the rest of our existence. And if that term is so important that it could brand someone for the rest of their lives, Caroll believes it shouldn't be marginalized or glossed over — it should be specific. The official AP Stylebook now reads:

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 alienan illegalillegals or undocumented.

And the AP will require its reporters — and presumably a lot of other news organizations beyond just the Times starting to question themselves — to do more homework:

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?

Essentially that prescription would strike from existence sentences like this — from the AP's Monday report on Senate negotiations that have nearly reached a conclusion:

Under the new AP guidelines, that phrase would change to something like "millions of people who don't have permission to live here legally." But even then, such an edit might be a bit too broad, since the original passage could be referring to children who, according to the AP, probably did not voluntarily and knowingly enter a country illegally. But the new reality that we're interested in a line edit and asking questions is probably a sign that the AP's shift isn't merely about semantics.

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