Hey AP Style Book: Immigrants aren’t “illegal”

Screw you AP Style Book.
The AP Style Book is a resource for journalists on language, spelling, pronunciation and proper word usage. I’m not clear how the AP Style Book makes decisions, but it is widely regarded and highly used by journalists.
This explains why most of the mainstream media still uses the term “illegal immigrant.” I find the term offensive and disrespectful, as do most immigration activists. People are not illegal, actions are. The advocate community uses the term “undocumented immigrant” which the Stylebook clearly disagrees with.
Thankfully, they don’t advocate using the term “alien.” But illegal needs to go.
If you want to contact the AP Style Book and lobby them to use “undocumented immigrant” you can email them here: info@apbookstore.com.

Join the Conversation

  • lorenc

    As an immigrant advocate I appreciate the discussion about how the words we use can (purposely or inadvertently) frame the discussion at hand. I personally think that when you lead with “illegal alien” you’ve already taken a side in the argument, much the same as when people throw the word “amnesty” around to describe any legalization program. They are loaded words that have come to mean something other than what they’re supposed to describe.
    I would also say that entering the country illegally is a civil violation, not a criminal violation. So it’s akin (in the eyes of the federal government) to not paying your taxes. Should we call all people who refuse to pay taxes “illegal citizens”?
    On a final clarifying note, I will point out to Miriam that “aliens” is not a pejorative word, it’s a term of art defined in the Immigration and Nationality Act (our immigration laws) and used by all immigration practitioners, judges, and advocates. It may be antiquated, but it’s pretty mainstream.

  • MisukoB

    “I would have to agree a bit. Feministing used to be my number 1 website, but now it’s Jezebel. It just seems a lot of the time like many people on Feministing are just waiting around looking for a fight, and that you get ‘brownie points’ for pointing out the highest number of possibly offensive things and getting offended, sometimes without stopping to consider other viewpoints. By no means does this describe anyone, but it does make it pretty scary to speak at all.”
    I don’t agree. And that is because I’m so tired of the whole “why so pc!” stuff nowadays, and others trying to imply that no one actually cares about anything, we just say things to impress each other. And a lot of people including many of those who call themselves feminist throw it around. And thus more and more show less understanding about power-structures, oppression, and privilege. As well as more tend to use it in the old “I don’t give a shit” way.
    It also seems to have become just another way to show just how “edgy/hip” they are by saying something controversial within a group.

  • lorenc

    One thing you must understand here is that the crime we’re talking about here is entering the US without inspection.
    Unless a law enforcement office catches you in the act of crossing the border, you have the right to defend yourself before a court of law and make the point that you do have the right to be here in spite of not having the proper paper work. That’s how we roll in the US. And all people should be presumed innocent until proven guilty. Also how we roll. For all you know, they could be an asylum seeker who fled political torture in a neighboring country. They may have the right to stay.
    Canadians, for example, enter the US without the need for any documentation. No visa, no stamp, no immigration paperwork. They come and go as they please. If they were picked up for some reason, they shouldn’t be presumed to be “illegal.” No one should be tagged illegal if they weren’t caught actively breaking the law. Everyone is entitled to have their day in court.

  • IAmGopherrr

    Why not?

  • 76cents

    Yes, it was unexpected. I have read and heard this term in obvious antichoice literature and group speak but “lost her unborn child” was what was used in the newspapers and on the tv news. I have never seen it in that context before. “unborn child” is not a term unknown to me. I grew up in the 80s in the Republic of Ireland and believe me the SPUC kept that terminology front and center.

  • Pantheon

    Again, that’s not necessarily what we’re talking about. Plenty of people enter with “inspection” and then overstay their legally allowed amount of time to be here.

  • Unequivocal

    I would also say that entering the country illegally is a civil violation, not a criminal violation. So it’s akin (in the eyes of the federal government) to not paying your taxes. Should we call all people who refuse to pay taxes “illegal citizens”?
    This may be off topic, but I don’t think your analogy holds, since deliberately evading taxes subjects one to both criminal and civil prosecution. We may not refer to such folks as “illegal citizens” (probably because their citizenship is not the most relevant element of their illegal activity), but we do commonly refer to them as tax evaders or frauds.

  • Girl Detective

    It’s also important to note that overstaying a visa is not a criminal offence, it’s a civil one. You can be asked to leave – forced to leave (but if you’re not a citizen, for example if you are in America legally on a tourist visa, you can pretty much be asked to leave at any time for any reason, that is the condition for entering the country as a non-citizen) but you can’t be charged with a crime. You have not committed a crime.
    So the term ‘illegal’ immigrant is misleading.

  • lorenc

    I think we are both making the same point here, i.e. that people who entered the country legally can at some point break immigration laws and become removable (or vice versa). Immigration is very nuanced, and often one’s status in this county is way more black and white than “legal” and “illegal” may connote. After all, even someone who overstays a legal visa in violation of immigration laws, may still be entitled to stay in the country. Is that person still an “illegal alien”? Are they only illegal for a little while?
    I think the larger point goes back to terminology.
    What I wanted to convey was that the AP should try to use a term that doesn’t demonize a group of people from the outset. “Illegal alien” isn’t a neutral term and immigration isn’t black-and-white.

  • pokemontaco.wordpress.com

    The word immigrant usually refers to a long-term settling in a country. Canadians require visas if they want to live or work in the U.S most of the time.
    People aren’t talking about Mexican and Canadians tourists when they refer to illegal immigrants. And if people don’t presume that Canadian hanging around for a month or 2 is illegal, it’s probably because Canada’s economy is in much better shape than the U.S’s, which cannot be said for Mexico.

  • MarySophia


  • SaraLaffs

    If you don’t like the AP Style standards, there’s always the Chicago Manual, Strunk & White, or just what your English teacher taught you. As someone who works in publication, I can promise you that consistent expression does matter. It’s about credibility.

  • Pantheon

    Actually, my point wasn’t that its not illegal to overstay a visa — it is illegal, whether or not it should be. My point was that it doesn’t make sense to use “undocumented” instead of illegal because someone with a lapsed visa is documented, but can still be an illegal immigrant.

  • Unequivocal

    The term “illegal” simply means “in violation of the law.” Civil offenses are still considered illegal.
    I am not inclined to defend the term “illegal immigrant,” as it is obviously deliberately charged. However, making the claim that violations of immigration law are not technically illegal seems to be an equally inaccurate use of obfuscating semantics.

  • BackOfBusEleven

    Everything you have said here is fundamentally false. I’m not talking about whether it’s right or wrong for immigrants to overstay their welcome or enter illegally. From everything I have said, it’s pretty clear that I’m talking about what’s accurate and inaccurate, not right or wrong. Secondly, once having a valid visa does not mean that an immigrant is documented or traceable by the US government. Expired documents are invalid documents, like driver’s licenses. Someone with an expired driver’s license has as much of a right to drive as someone who has never been issued one. So someone with an expired visa is undocumented and are extremely difficult to find if they move. Thirdly, calling someone an illegal immigrant does dehumanize them. You and I may not believe that this makes them terribly awful people, but the system of privilege and oppression does, and there’s no denying that. That’s why we’re having this discussion. And like I said, we don’t talk about anyone else BEING illegal, not even just part of their being. Lastly, the personal is political. You absolutely cannot separate the term from the individual and the overall political climate.

  • BackOfBusEleven

    Nobody uses “illegal immigrant” to put someone down? And nobody ever uses “illegal immigrant” to describe people who deviate from the Anglo norm, without even knowing their citizenship or immigration status? *pinches self* Yeah, I felt that. You should try it.

  • everybodyever

    It’s inappropriate to use because of the fact that it HAS been purposefully used as an insult.
    This makes no sense. So if somebody else uses a term as an insult, nobody else is allowed to use it anymore…? Well, shit, school kids call each other gay in disdain all the time — what are all the men who love men supposed to call themselves?

  • Mike Crichton

    It probably should be though. If we referred to white-collar criminals in harsher terms, maybe there’d be fewer of them.

  • http://feministing.com/members/stever/ Frank

    Okay, just use the word Non-White Criminal, because you define their actions, and you define their race in so doing.