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AP banishes ‘illegal’ and ‘undocumented’ immigrants

ap-logoThe Associated Press last week announced it will no longer use the term “illegal immigrant” in its stylebook, long considered the gold standard for reporters and writers in US news media. They note “illegal immigrant” should not be used because it is the person’s action, not the person, that is illegal.

The updated stylebook entry:

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.

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.

The change has sparked discussions and analysis across the country. What to say if not “illegal immigrant”? AP offers several specific examples, but often the subject is a large segment of the population, all those living in the country illegally, the shadowy eleven million referenced in immigration reform discussions. According to AP, they should now be referred to as “people living in the country illegally.” (The suggested “without legal permission” seems redundant and/or incorrect. Is there such a thing as illegal permission? Do they mean official or government permission?)

Wordsmiths will agonize over this, especially those bound by AP style. They will go to great lengths to parse their words, weigh them against AP’s suggestions, try to make them flow with and around the new edicts. All in the name of consistency. Because that’s why stylebooks exist — to impose linguistic consistency within organizations or industries. They are not the arbiters of our social and political mores; the man on the street and the politician in Washington are not likely to choose different words tomorrow just because the AP changed its stylebook.

This could have been passed off as simply a bit of grammatical hair-splitting, but nothing about “illegal immigrants” in this country is simple. That this change comes only after years of intense pressure from activist groups makes it appear that political correctness is the motive, particularly in light of AP Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll’s remark: “Our goal always is to use the most precise and accurate words so that the meaning is clear to any reader anywhere.” Doesn’t “illegal immigrant” meet that goal? The term is short, convenient, and widely used and understood to mean a person who is living in this country illegally. A change in AP’s stylebook is not likely to change that any time soon.



  1. I like your discussion of the “illegal immigrant” issue, PT, and I agree that the meaning of the term is clear, despite its technical incorrectness. And speaking of that, isn’t the problem the same as the one that is avoided by using the term, “alleged” relative to criminals? Er, excuse me, alleged criminals. In other words, even though there are 11 million people living in the country illegally (or is it 14 million?), most of them haven’t been officially tried and found guilty of that offense and therefore shouldn’t, I suppose, be captioned as though they had.

    “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” ― William Shakespeare, King Henry VI, Part 2

    • Journalists are taught early to always say “alleged” to protect against being sued for slander/libel if the person named is later found to be innocent. It depends on whether the subject is a named individual(s) or a group of unnamed people. When you start naming names or have identifiable individuals involved, you’d better be using the disclaimer. When you refer to “illegal immigrants” in general, you are specifying those immigrants who are here illegally, not all immigrants — a distinction many activists don’t seem to recognize. There are, as you note, opportunistic lawyers around every corner, and we’ve become a very litigious society.

  2. As a member of the consensus, it is indeed a politically correct and silly distinction without a difference. Nobody is any longer responsible for anything and don’t deserve labels that describe them exactly.

Now that I've had my say ...

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