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

  • Comrade Kevin

    I rather prefer we get rid of the entire stylebook altogether. Being aware of grammar rules and how to craft a sentence is important, but I’ve always found that standardized rules, regardless of the intent, restrict creative expression.

  • kirakira

    Actually, AP is incorrect for another reason: the term for someone who has *entered* the country (any country) illegally should be “illegal entrant.” Entry alone does not confirm immigration.
    “Illegal immigrant” is a catchall for immigrants whose immigration process has involved illegal/extralegal actions: “undocumented immigrants” are a small subset of “illegal immigrants”: those who entered without any legal documentation. The term should not be used interchangeably with “illegal immigrants”, many of whom *arrive/enter* legally (with visas, passes etc) and whose status later changes when legal documentation is not maintained for whatever reason- “illegal immigrants” can therefore include both documented and undocumented persons.

  • firefoxx66

    Probably not a popular opinion, but I don’t think there’s really anything wrong with the term ‘illegal immigrants’… it’s technically correct. If you enter the country without going through customs/immigration you’re entering… illegally. Whether or not the law on that is correct, whether or not you should be allowed to stay, and all other controversial issues aside, I think there’s nothing wrong with usually a legally sound definition.
    I guess I feel saying that ‘illegal immigrant’ is offensive is taking it a bit far, and almost trying to cover something up and replace it with something more palatable. I guess I feel like trying to dodge what’s actually true, no matter how you feel about it, isn’t going to help immigration reform come any quicker.

  • dzuunmod

    I think the counter that journalism-types might make to that Kevin, is that journalism, especially in the case of a just-the-facts organization like AP, isn’t about creativity. It’s about clarity and comprehension on the reader’s part.
    That’s not to defend AP’s policy in this case, just to make the point that a style guide is needed to avoid many, many misunderstandings that would come up if there wasn’t one.

  • Jack

    You shouldn’t have a lot of creative expression when you’re using the AP Stylebook. It’s used for things like reporting the news. “This happened in this place, and investigations are ongoing,” sort of thing.
    I really don’t see anyone successfully ordering English into any standardized form; English is a confused and shambling abomination of a language, sewn together haphazardly from German and French and Latin and Spanish and the native tongues of any foreigners willing to talk to us for ten minutes in a row. English is an Elder God: to look at it, to know its secrets, to plumb its unfathomable depths, brings only madness.

  • Lissla Lissar

    Without those standardized rules, it’s hard for people to “be aware of grammar rules and how to craft a sentence”. Standardized use of language is there for a reason.

  • Julia

    I’ve also heard the term “unauthorized” used by health care providers who serve immigrants.

  • s mandisa

    no human is illegal. end of story. it doesnt matter if they cross a constructed “border” or not into another country. i find that word on par with other racial slurs that are thrown at people as a form of hatred. any time ones legal status is used as a way to describe their ENTIRE BEING, we have a serious problem.

  • Surfin3rdWave

    It wouldn’t be correct to say “undocumented immigrant”. The prefix un- would imply that the person had been documented, but is no longer documented.
    “Non-documented” immigrant would be correct, but that sounds strained and overly PC.

  • Marc

    So, do we want to call such people “undocumented” instead of “illegal” to soften political blows or out of political correctness and sensitivity? I agree that words are important, but we need to have reasons and end goals for doing so, or else we’re going to be running around trying to change things that, in the end, will have no endstate.
    @Kevin: I disagree with you. AP Style Guide – the journalist’s Bible, is there for a reason – so that there is consistency as well as a canon for being succinct in writing. Newspapers operate within an allotted space, and to have it be the Wild West down there simply does not work.
    That said, I still pull whatever hair I have out each time I pick up a newspaper, because so many AP Style Guide mistakes get by staff writers and editors.

  • Surfin3rdWave

    Exactly. AP is for journalism. You don’t have to use it if you’re writing fiction, poetry, or your own private blog.

  • Jack

    any time ones legal status is used as a way to describe their ENTIRE BEING, we have a serious problem.
    It’s not, though. Someone being called an illegal immigrant doesn’t necessarily mean that the speaker thinks that that’s all that person is. People use the terms “illegal immigrant” or “undocumented worker” or whatever it is you like to use not because that’s all those particular people are, but that’s because that’s the part of their identity (whether self-assumed or culturally applied) that is relevant to the discussion. Whether or not you think the discussion should even be happening is a different thing altogether.

  • firefoxx66

    That’s why ‘illegal’ on its own is called out by AP as being an incorrect term… but put this before ‘entrant’ or ‘immigrant’ and you are describing that aspect of them. Like if you called someone ‘underage’ alone, you might not be classifying them correctly. However if they’re 19, they’re not an underage driver, but they may be an underage drinker. It shows specifically how they are underage… not that their whole being is underage.

  • filiasilvae

    If someone impersonates a police officer, is it somehow inaccurate to call that person an ‘impersonator,’ or even ‘illegal impersonator’? It strikes me that referring to a person as an ‘illegal immigrant’ says absolutely nothing about his or her humanity. No one is calling anyone else an ‘illegal woman’ or ‘illegal man’. What is illegal is the fact of immigration without conformity to the given country’s regulations (flawed or otherwise). ‘Illegal immigrant’ is a totally reasonable contraction of ‘person who has immigrated illegally’. Two words are better than five.
    Pretending illegal immigrants aren’t in the country illegally, or couching the term in nice, rose-scented language just induces comfort with the existing system. It does not help spur the change of the existing US immigration policies.

  • 76cents

    out of status immigrant?
    A news story in CT caught my eye regarding an accident. They referred to the woman losing her “unborn child”. The language was unexpected. Is this in the AP stylebook?

  • Jack

    It wouldn’t be correct to say “undocumented immigrant”. The prefix un- would imply that the person had been documented, but is no longer documented.
    Not really. It’s rare enough to use “document” as a verb that most people would read “undocumented” as an adjective describing the worker rather than a transitive verb in the passive voice. It’s vague, but it’s not technically incorrect.

  • caeron

    The AP style guide is to help provide consistent and clear journalism standards of communication. Journalists aren’t supposed to be creative, just accurate.
    Part of that is that the language must reflect common usage whatever the disagreements with common usage we may have. The AP style guide is not going to create new terms for something that everybody already has a name for.
    So if you’re unhappy with AP Style Guide, work to change the common usage.

  • smiley

    The problem is that the new term itself soon becomes offensive. And then the search starts again for a term deemed (by who?) to be less offensive.
    Besides, changing the term does not alter the fact. “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” anyone?

  • IAmGopherrr

    Um, I dont get it? If were referring to illegal immigration then why not use that? Its the same as undocumented worker. Isnt there a difference between legal immigrants and illegal immigrants that warrants differentiation? They deal with different circumstances than someone who has legal protections and access to justice.

  • IAmGopherrr

    But how can you call them illegal when theyre doing everything legal?
    “The term should not be used interchangeably with “illegal immigrants”, many of whom *arrive/enter* legally (with visas, passes etc) ”
    Or maybe I didnt understand what you were saying?

  • syndella

    And undocumented immigrant doesn’t?

  • syndella

    looks pretty popular to me, lol.

  • hillaryb

    YIKES. I guess not all feminists get this issue (or maybe these are all trolls). Thanks for posting, MZP. We should all be cognizant about how certain groups prefer to be referenced, and at the very least, journalists should be.
    On second read, these must be trolls b/c most feministing regulars don’t use “politically correct” or “PC” ha!

  • kirakira

    “Illegal” in “illegal immigrant” shouldn’t be taken to mean that anything beyond immigration status is illegal… firefox666 addressed this well below.

  • Pantheon

    They enter legally, but they are doing something illegal when they don’t leave when their visa expires. So after that, they are not doing everything legally, but they aren’t completely undocumented either– that expired visa exists.

  • SamLL

    Suppose I am an accountant who cooks the books at my firm. I am definitely doing something illegal, but it would not be commonplace (or correct?) to refer to me as an “illegal accountant”.

  • SamLL

    Wouldn’t that be ‘de-documented’?
    You can have people who are unmarried who have never been married, right?

  • Pantheon

    Not all immigrants have jobs? So it doesn’t make sense to say that undocumented worker means the same thing as illegal immigrant. Also, as mentioned above, not all illegal immigrants are actually undocumented. Plenty have documents that have expired, or something along those lines.

  • April

    It’s not inaccurate to say that something illegal is happening, but the person isn’t illegal. The person engaged in, or is engaging in, illegal behavior or practices, but they are not illegal people. The term is dehumanizing and, well, inaccurate.

  • abileen

    No. Just no.

  • newyorkred1

    Many people enter the county legally on student or tourist visas but then “overstay” their visas–staying even when their semester here is over, etc, and don’t update their status. So they entered legally but their continued presence in the country is considered illegal.

  • newyorkred1

    Was that really unexpected? That’s how many anti-choice people refer to a fetus, as an unborn child… save the unborn, etc… I find it ridiculous because it makes it seem like they were born, and then it was taken back… like being invited and then uninvited… well, maybe that is the intention of the rhetoric. Anyway the usage is pretty common. I don’t know what AP says about it.

  • katemoore

    For the record, here’s how changes get made: every year, a lot of copy editors, many of whom are in ACES (the American Copy Editors’ Society) get together and look at the stylebook to suggest any changes. It’s a very slow, very conservative process — it took them forever just to change “Web site” to “website,” for instance.
    You might have more luck with individual papers’ house style guides, as most places deviate from AP style on occasion. Some, like the New York Times, even have their own stylebook. (That’s why you’ll read things like “Mr. Obama” in the NYT but not most other places.)

  • Suzann

    If you check into a hotel via the reception desk you may be a “lawful” resident. However, if you overstay your reservation, your status may change.
    (I realize that the example is imperfect – see as hotels are not governmental entities – but the idea is there.)

  • 73666673

    I’m glad someone here had the sense to post this.
    Feministing, posts like these with language like “Screw you AP Style Book.” are exactly why most people don’t take feminism, and by extension your arguments, seriously.

  • pokemontaco.wordpress.com

    Staying in the country without documentation is illegal… What’s the quibble here? Whether you think the laws are correct or not, the term is.
    Robber – one who has committed a robbery.
    Intoxicated or “drunk” driver – someone who drove while intoxicated/drunk.
    Illegal immigrant – someone who immigrated illegally, i.e not going through the proper channels.

  • Michelle J

    Because we don’t all agree with you, we “don’t get this issue”? Really? How narrow minded of you.
    And along the lines of narrow mindedness, PC is a term coined only for those not of the feminist movement? How sad for you to think so.
    In addition, I am also interested in (and sensitive to) how certain groups prefer to be referenced, but I noticed the neither OP nor any of the commenters mentioned their immigration status, so this really isn’t the forum to see how people of afore mentioned group feel about the “illegal immigrant” nametag.

  • borrow_tunnel

    Nope, I’m a regular and not a troll. And not racist. I’m actually part Mexican but I still believe in using illegal immigrant because as one other poster mentioned, all we’re doing is hopping from one word to the next. First illegal alien was used, then that was “stigmatized”, then illegal immigrant was used, then that was deemed (and this is a favorite word here) “problematic” and now we use undocumented immigrant. Changing the wording does not change legislation. What we need is to help immigrants speed the legalization process up so they see the worth in becoming documented. It’s no different than a conservative or pro war person calling the Iraq war an “extended military engagement.” It’s still a war. If we call conservatives out on that then we need to abide by the same rules and make words as concise and truthful as possible.

  • Lance

    I understand the impulse against illegal, but undocumented is also not quite right. Most of the people we’re describing aren’t undocumented– they’re documented in payroll systems, insurance contracts, and probably in dozens of government databases most of us have never heard of. Not to mention that most of them are also extensively documented in their home country, wherever that may be. What about “unauthorized immigrant?”

  • BackOfBusEleven

    “Retarded” is also an accepted term. Look it up in the DSM and other mental health publications, and “retarded” is used all the time. So why not call retarded people “retarded?” After all, they’re retarded. And if it hurts their feelings, well, they’re not equipped to come up with these terms for themselves. I am, because I’m not retarded.
    Certain words and terms for people are created by members of dominant cultures purposely to oppress minorities. They sound good to you, because you can use them to privilege yourself whenever you’re feeling inadequate and feel like scapegoating someone weaker than you. We don’t call anyone “illegal” except for people who enter and/or stay in the country illegally. This isn’t a coincidence. It’s a xenophobic tactic that’s used to put down people who aren’t “real” Americans (you know, brown people).
    “Illegal immigrant” also doesn’t tell the whole story. Most of the people who are here illegally are people who entered legally and overstayed their welcome. This is as much a crime as being homeless. What good does locking them up do? Nothing. It ignores a problem. Same thing with illegal immigration. The problem with illegal immigration is that people who come here or stay here illegally are practically nonexistent. The United States needs to know who’s in the country. They know I’m here, they know where I work, and they know where I live. They probably know where I am all the time. This is very helpful to me when I’m a victim of a crime, and helpful to everyone else when I commit a crime (I never even got a parking ticket, so I’m far from a criminal, but you get the idea). Undocumented immigrants are more likely to be victims of crimes than perpetrators of crimes, since Americans often take advantage of their status, and they are the least likely to benefit from services offered to victims of crimes. So if they get hurt or kidnapped or killed, they get no justice, because nobody knows that they even exist.
    So from a national security perspective and a human rights perspective, the term “undocumented immigrant” is not only more accurate than “illegal,” but better identifies the problem of illegal immigration.

  • qtiger

    Thank goodness that the feminist police are here to tell us what we should think.
    On to the meat of your post, I do agree that we should be aware of how certain groups refer to themselves. But that doesn’t include being willfully ignorant of the political goals or outright deception involved. Anti-gay groups might want you to refer to them as “pro-family,” pro-war groups might prefer “pro-America,” and creationists would ask that you use the phrase “intelligent design.” Accepting and using names like these supports the political agenda involved by rebranding the cause.

  • Jack

    Generally we use the term “crooked” for that kind of thing. Crooked cop, crooked accountant. Probably crooked teacher if you could find one. The problem with your comparison is that you stop doing accounting or police work or teaching at the end of the day. As long as you are still in a country that is not your homeland, you are an immigrant. And if you’re in that country illegally, you’re an illegal immigrant.

  • firefoxx66

    True, but you can apply this to other situations. There is no ‘legal’ status to being an accountant. However, you could say that someone practising medicine without a licence was an ‘illegal doctor’. It’s not commonly used and it sounds awkward, but it makes literal sense. So, no, you can’t just apply the word ‘illegal’ haphazardly – it can only be used to describe something that has laws surrounding how you must do something that can be broken in order to make it illegal. Entering the country and overstaying a visa or entering the country without going through customs/immigration is illegal. Thus, illegal entrant or illegal immigrant (probably you could differentiate between the two because ‘entrant’ implies they’ve entered illegally but have no intention to settle, but immigrant by definition means they have the intention to settle here, regardless of how they entered).

  • firefoxx66

    I addressed this in reply to someone else below. To quote: “That’s why ‘illegal’ on its own is called out by AP as being an incorrect term… but put this before ‘entrant’ or ‘immigrant’ and you are describing that aspect of them. Like if you called someone ‘underage’ alone, you might not be classifying them correctly. However if they’re 19, they’re not an underage driver, but they may be an underage drinker. It shows specifically how they are underage… not that their whole being is underage.”

  • firefoxx66

    I think reading the other comments would be helpful as some of these issues have been already addressed.
    One thing is that you are getting caught up in whether it’s right or wrong for illegal immigrants to be able to stay, etc., which is beside the point of the question. Personally I’m a huge advocate for immigration reform; I see the current situation as one of the top problems in the US.
    You answer one of your own points yourself. You state that most illegal immigrants enter the country legally but overstay their welcome. This means they’re not undocumented, as others have pointed out. They are documented – the government knows they’re here, who they are, where they reported to be staying when they arrived – but they’re now here against the law, which says you cannot overstay your tourist (or other) visa without getting another visa or some other kind of approval (citizenship, etc). Breaking the law means you are doing something illegal. Thus, staying in the country with the intention of settling after when you are in the country illegally (overstaying your visa or having entered without going through customs/immigration) makes you an ‘illegal immigrant’. You are not illegal in any other way, you are not any less of a person because of this. It does not mean the immigration law is correct, it does not mean change doesn’t need to happen – it simply reflects how you stand as the current laws are on the books: You have broken immigration law.
    People can take offence to just about anything. So one thing that has to be taken into consideration when deciding if a term is blanket-labelled as ‘offensive’ and banned from the vernacular is whether it is offensive because it’s not a very accurate description or whether it is an accurate legal description that has perhaps been overused but is best described this way. Many people would take offence to being called ‘illegal drug users’… but if you smoke pot from time to time, legally, you are are an illegal drug user. There are no strange, derogatory terms in there, it’s pretty much a straight-up legal description. It’s completely separate from the social issue of whether you are less of a person for using illegal drugs or the legal issue of whether using that drug should be illegal… it’s simply a description of how you stand according to the current law… no more, no less.

  • firefoxx66

    With the obvious liking it has gotten, I’m glad I posted it too.
    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.
    While I do think it’s important to point out offensive things, I think it’s also important they be portrayed in a realistic manner in the context they were probably meant and, above all, in a constructive manner. Especially when responding to someone else who has commenting, I feel like people sometimes are just looking for a hole to start an argument, instead of giving the commenter the benefit of the doubt and understanding that they might have simply overlooked something or worded something badly. It leads to a pretty hostile commenting environment. I find that Jezebel, in general, is more forgiving – a badly worded comment will not bring down the hordes upon you, and apologies/clarifications are readily accepted. Unfortunately, this has pushed Jezebel above Feministing for me.
    But of course all of that is just my opinion.

  • mke

    What a relief! All this time I thought it was institutional patriarchy that was doing that.

  • https://me.yahoo.com/a/NjctTMt1go6tzFnnuX_n3SwJzxsESw–#a80ff

    “Retarded” is a completely different issue. It’s inappropriate to use because of the fact that it HAS been purposefully used as an insult. Kids at school will laugh at mentally disabled students, calling them retarded to make fun of them. “Retarded” also means “slowed down,” which isn’t necessarily true for mentally disabled students. Their minds work in different ways from “normal” people, but that doesn’t make them slow.
    “Illegal immigrant,” by contrast, implies that the person is an immigrant who has immigrated illegally. As far as I know, this is true. It’s not targeting “brown people,” it’s targeting people who immigrated illegally. Nobody would seriously advocate calling a Mexican person an illegal immigrant unless he or she actually entered the country illegally. Otherwise, it would be racist.
    That said, I really wish this blog (and we feminists as a whole) would stop quibbling over issues of semantics and focus on things that actually matter. I’m pretty sure most illegal immigrants would much rather Americans try to change the laws that make it so hard for them to get here and make a living, than argue about what to call them.

  • Hawk or Handsaw

    unlike the other languages that have no connections to any other language and were formed whole cloth by motherbrain.

  • Athenia

    But can’t we say, “I have illegal fireworks”?
    Just as well as “No, these are legal fireworks.”
    A person is a noun. adj + noun = correct grammar
    Now whether or not, “illegal immigrant” has a negative or neutral connotation is a different matter.