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AP Rids Stylebook of 'Illegal' Immigrants


Undocumented people wait to fill out application forms for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program on August 15, 2012 at Navy Pier in Chicago, Illinois.

Undocumented people wait to fill out application forms for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program on August 15, 2012 at Navy Pier in Chicago, Illinois.

The Associated Press Stylebook is officially changing the way it calls people living in a country illegally, an amendment celebrated by pro-immigration activists.

The guide used by media outlets around the world no longer sanctions the term “illegal immigrant” or use of “illegal” to describe a person, according to a blog post published on the AP’s website Tuesday.

It instead recommends editorial staff use the word “illegal” to describe an unlawful action, such as living in or immigrating to a country illegally.

Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll explained the decision evolved from wide-ranging discussions that included ardent supporters of the phrase “illegal immigrant.”

Ultimately, she said, the Stylebook removed the phrase “illegal immigrant” as part of a larger effort to describe people specifically by their actions, rather than with labels.

“And that discussion about labeling people, instead of behavior, led us back to ‘illegal immigrant’ again,” Caroll wrote on the AP’s blog. “We concluded that to be consistent, we needed to change our guidance. So we have.”

She acknowledged language and phrasing likely will evolve in the future, and that this will frustrate some journalists. But for now, she said, the AP believes “this is the best way to describe someone in a country without permission.”

“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,” she said.

Jose Antonio Vargas, a Philippine-born journalist living in the United States without the proper legal documentation, celebrated the change.

"Long overdue but welcome nonetheless," he wrote on his Facebook page. “No human being is illegal.”

Vargas is a former Washington Post reporter who now runs the immigrant advocacy group Define America. His Facebook post received hundreds of endorsements.

“The point is, illegal behavior doesn't make a person illegal,” wrote immigration lawyer Jessica Jenkins. “We don't call people "illegal" when they rob banks or fail to pay taxes, why should we here? It doesn't even make sense grammatically.”

The language used to describe the 11 million people living without legal permission in the U.S. has long stirred controversy. Last week, Don Young, a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives, apologized for describing Latino workers as “wetbacks,” a derogatory term once commonly used to describe Mexicans who entered the U.S. by wading across the Rio Grande River.

Foreigners living illegally in the U.S. also are often referred to as aliens, a word Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies tweeted is apt.
The AP Styleguide is considered the ultimate reference book for journalists and, as a result, influences the language read and often used by millions of people.

Other major news outlets, including the Voice of America, are now deliberating whether they should follow the AP’s lead and stop calling people “illegal.”
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