‘Illegal Immigrant’ Removed from AP Stylebook

Posted By Bianca Olvera Lopez

Illegal Immigrant

On Tuesday, The Associated Press announced ‘Illegal Immigrant’ would be eliminated from the AP Stylebook, stating: “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.” The director of media relations Paul Colford, posted a blog entry, ‘Illegal Immigrant No More,’ that further explains the AP’s decision to make the changes.

The updated entry will be available on the new print edition, Stylebook Mobile, AP Stylebook Online, and Manual de Estilo Online de la AP, the new Spanish-language Stylebook.

The entry will read as follows:

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 alien, an illegal, illegals 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.

I agree with the changes, but what are your thoughts? Do you think journalists should stay away from phrases that can be understood as labels? Do you think this will affect other terms or phrases?

Back in October 2012, New York Times’ Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan, argued the phrase “illegal immigrant” is clear and accurate in an entry titled Readers Won’t Benefit if Times Bans the Term ‘Illegal Immigrant.’ But on Tuesday, Sullivan shared The Times, Too, Is Reconsidering the Term ‘Illegal Immigrant,’ and said “So many people find it offensive to refer to a person with an adjective like “illegal” that I now favor the use of “undocumented” or “unauthorized” as alternatives.” Sounds like progress, but will the changes affect our readers? Will they adapt quickly and will they be comfortable with the changes? Do you prefer “undocumented” or “unauthorized” over “illegal immigrant?”


12 responses to “‘Illegal Immigrant’ Removed from AP Stylebook

  1. This is super interesting. I never truly thought about how saying someone is illegal as offensive, just a descriptive word- nothing against them personally but just to describe their actions. After re reading this blog a couple times I have come to the conclusion that I am in favor of the change. I think the words undocumented and unauthorized are better to use than illegal immigrant.
    I think it will take time for readers to adapt to this but an even longer time for writers. It has become such a common way to describe someone who came into the country illegally that it is engraved in our vocabulary.
    I think with that phrase gone it will force writers to be more accurate and include more detail, which isn’t a bad thing right?

  2. Dawn Schroder

    This isn’t exactly the same thing, but the thinking behind it is kind of similar. Since I began taking courses for teaching special education I learned that the appropriate way to refer to a person or people with a disability is to use “people first” language. It’s appropriate to refer to someone as a person with a disability or a child with special needs, not the other way around saying a disabled person or special needs kids. It may seem like a small distinction at first, but the implications are that they are being labeled first by there disability instead of as a person who has a disability.

    • The “people first” approach is actually a great way to refer to people. I think it won’t allow labels, and it could encourage writers and speakers to appreciate people and minimize harm.

  3. I think this will be a relatively slow change for removing this from our vocabulary completely as it has been used freely for a number of years now. I had never really thought of the term “illegal immigrant” as being hurtful or demeaning, but rather as a description of how they arrived in the United States and as a way of grouping a set of people. I’m not sure if I agree with taking this term away completely as these people have arrived illegally into the United States. I understand they probably did it for a better life and getting a green card can be difficult, but using a term to describe immigrants shouldn’t be the source of so much controversy.

    • I think you have a point, and until now most of us have referred to people who entered a country illegally as “illegal immigrants”, but I do think the new AP style guidelines are more effective and do make more sense: living in or entering a country illegally or without legal permission. Also, an action can be illegal but a person can’t.

  4. I think if the term is offensive to people then it is appropriate to remove it from the AP Stylebook. I think it is appropriate for journalist to stay away from terms that can be understood as labels because it helps eliminate the possibility that someone could be miss labeled. I do think the term does give readers will require an adjustment period to get used to “undocumented” or “unauthorized;” however, if it is preferable a large portion of the population then the change is a appropriate. It will probably take sometime to change in spoken language because it has become such a widely used term worldwide. I’m not sure many other words will change like this because it might mean using euphemisms which can confuse readers and decrease concise writing.

  5. This is a great innovative change, not only the way journalist write, but in the way we value, report and describe people. I really enjoyed Dawn’s comparison with disabled people and illegal immigrants.

    I would prefer to use the term “undocumented” because I feel it is most accurate. When you say, “Unauthorized” I ask…by who? And referring to someone as an “illegal immigrant” is demeaning and in some terms may not even fit the circumstances of a person. Such as the example of children or people whose green card has expired. I agree with AP that “illegal” should be used to describe a person not an action.

  6. I find this very interesting because the term “illegal immigrant” was just something that was always said in conversation and in writing around me, so I never thought it was offensive. It makes sense to me now after reading this post that calling someone illegal is quite offensive. I agree with the AP Stylebook entry when it says that “illegal” should only be used to describe an action and not an actual person. I definitely think it will take a while for people to accept and get used to referring to the situation in a different way. Many people think it is ok to use the term “illegal immigrant” because their actions are illegal, but a person themselves can’t be illegal. I am also in favor of using “undocumented.” I think it makes the most sense in this context. I’m curious as to where the term “illegal immigrant” first appeared and how it caught on.

  7. I was really excited about this story when I heard about it, so I’m really glad you decided to write about this change! Honestly, eliminating the phrase “illegal immigrant” has been a long time coming and I think it can make a significant difference in the way journalists approach their subjects. I thought the comparison to person-first attribution was really relevant because the way we discuss our subjects must always keep in mind that they are people, above all. And while simply putting a suggestion in a stylebook won’t change the way an entire population is treated in America, it can help ensure that our national dialogue is framed in a more respectful manner. I think this story reflects that the words journalists use really do have power and we need to be careful about the terms and label we apply to others.

    • One of the things that this issue didn’t make me think about, and I’m glad you brought it up, was the power that we have as journalists. You’re right, readers do rely on our words and the terms and labels we use, so we should think critically about how we use them and who they could affect.

  8. I’m very glad they took the term “illegal immigrant” out of the stylebook. I admit that I have not given much thought to this specific label, but people are too complex to be summed up in one label. When using “illegal immigrant” in our writing that is exactly what we have done, summed the person up as one thing and thrown out the rest. Any two dimensional terms are very dangerous in the media. We should aim to give a full view.

  9. Pingback: AP banishes ‘illegal’ and ‘undocumented’ immigrants | Pied Type

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