The AP drops 'illegal immigrant,' why it matters



A student wearing an "I am undocumented" T-shirt protests deportations on June 15, 2012 in Los Angeles, California.


Kevork Djansezian

The Associated Press has nixed “illegal immigrant” from its stylebook.

The AP now dictates to stop using “illegal” when describing a person. “Instead, it tells users that ‘illegal’ should describe only an action, such as living in or immigrating to a country illegally,” says the news wire's Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll’s statement explaining the move.

So should you care?

Many an AP Stylebook-thumping editor would say yes.

AP style changes sometimes cause rumbles in the industry. Think back to other style switcheroos, such as cutting the hyphen in email and removing the space between web and site. However mundane sounding, writers were euphoric, although the impact of such tweaks on humanity is debatable.

But some changes are arguably more significant. In 1986, as Fox News reports, the AP's style editor announced the wire would use "anti-abortion" instead of "pro-life" and abortion rights instead of "pro-choice."

This new shift, announced Tuesday, pops the lid off another one of the great American "issues."

It touches on the immigration debate that’s heating up in communities and political corners across this “country of immigrants.” It comes as Democratic and Republican lawmakers are making headway on immigration reform legislation and President Barack Obama looks to make immigration overhaul his “legacy item.”

Organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union have rallied around the slogan "no human being is illegal" for some time, and many have prodded the media to change its language to reflect this.

They include the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, which in 2006 began lobbying its industry to stop calling immigrants illegal, as Roque Planas, associate editor of HuffPost LatinoVoices, points out. A Fox News Latino poll taken last year — making the rounds again today — showed 46 percent of Latino voters find “illegal immigrant” offensive.

While some advocates have rooted for a switch to “undocumented,” the AP's style czar has struck that down too, claiming migrants often have documents just not the right ones.

(Both undocumented and illegal immigrant are accepted if a source is quoted saying it.)

AP-abiding journalists covering this issue now must tweak the I-word, and scrounge for better alternatives.

“Acceptable variations include living in or entering a country illegally or without legal permission,” the stylebook says, but it also urges reporters to be specific.

A vote for pithier writing it is not.

The AP's sway may be considerable, but how powerful? It's a 165-year-old nonprofit news cooperative owned by its American newspaper and broadcast members and one of the world's largest newsgathering services. But it's lost some important members over the years (i.e. CNN and Tribune Company newspapers). Still, its stylebook is influential in the industry, something of a bible in most newsrooms.

But some accuse the AP of overstepping. Commentators on "Fox & Friends" said the AP is "doing some cheerleading" and lobbying for immigration reform.

Other journalists questioned the value of such a move.

"Simply changing the wording isn't going to alter attitudes among those who feel undocumented migrants are a scourge," said Dudley Althaus, who has reported from Mexico for US newspapers for over 20 years, and now as correspondent for GlobalPost.

"If the number of Mexicans and others slipping into the United States without papers — or overstaying their visas, which accounts for millions of 'illegals' — continues to decline, US attitudes toward the migrants will change, whatever wording is used to describe them," he added.

Ernest Sotomayor, before becoming dean of student affairs at the Columbia Journalism School, reported at newspapers that were steeped in immigration issues in New York and Texas. He saw the AP news as a positive change.

"These are people, and they are driven here by many factors, and while they arrive without permission, they are not illegal humans and that is precisely what the terminology implies," he told GlobalPost.

"We don't describe disgraced members of congress as illegal congressmen after they are found to have broken ethics laws, nor do we call bankers convicted of insider trading illegal bankers.

"Further, our society for generations has welcomed the people coming here to find paid labor, utilizing them to build our homes, bridges and streets, work in service industries. So it is hypocritical to call them illegal and then, by the millions, hire them into jobs no else will take," Sotomayor said.

The AP is by no means the first to dump the label.

ABC-Univision last year urged media to follow it in changing the wording because it viewed illegal immigrant as "dehumanizing to those it describes." The network reports:

"We wrote last year about how most of America's top college newspapers and major TV networks, including ABC, NBC and CNN, have vowed to stop using the term."

On AP's news, some responded enthusiastically, and some asked what took the top arbiter of news style so long.

“It’s a very late action, but better late than never,” Flor de Maria Oliva, a former editor of the Spanish-language section of The New Mexican newspaper, told the Santa Fe paper. “Whatever influence [the change] may have, it can only improve the way we talk about and refer to people.”

Indeed, not just college papers had made the switch. Jamie Stockwell, managing editor of the San Antonio Express-News, told media think tank Poynter her paper had stopped using "illegal immigrant" five years ago.

“We’ve been excited in the newsroom,” she said. “We’ve been opposed to ‘illegal immigrant’ and the worst, ‘illegal’” (as a noun) for some time. Stockwell says the change in AP style is part of a broader movement on the part of publications to adopt a style they feel is “much more accurate and much more sensitive to what is very much an emotional issue.”

A big question mark hangs over The New York Times, whose style, like many media, varies from the wire service. The Times' public editor, Margaret Sullivan, wrote that New York's Gray Lady is considering changes on immigration lingo too, albeit not as "sweeping" as the AP's.

Below is a Storify collection of tweets on the topic collated by Poynter.

[View the story "The change from \"illegal immigrant\" to \"illegal immigration\"" on Storify]