The Associated Press drops “illegal” from immigrant

no human being is illegal poster

In a stunning victory for immigration advocates, the Associated Press Stylebook, the bible of grammar and style for journalists in the U.S., will no longer describe people who live in a country illegally as “illegal immigrants.” The reasoning is one that activists have been making for years, with campaigns such as “Drop the I-Word”: People are not illegal. Actions are.

Kathleen Carroll, senior vice president and executive editor of the stylebook, described the organization’s reasons in a blog post yesterday:

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.

Why did we make the change?

The discussions on this topic have been wide-ranging and include many people from many walks of life. (Earlier, they led us to reject descriptions such as “undocumented,” despite ardent support from some quarters, because it is not precise. A person may have plenty of documents, just not the ones required for legal residence.)

Those discussions continued even after AP affirmed “illegal immigrant” as the best use, for two reasons.

A number of people felt that “illegal immigrant” was the best choice at the time. They also believed the always-evolving English language might soon yield a different choice and we should stay in the conversation.

Also, we had in other areas been ridding the Stylebook of labels. The new section on mental health issues argues for using credibly sourced diagnoses instead of labels. Saying someone was “diagnosed with schizophrenia” instead of schizophrenic, for example.

And that discussion about labeling people, instead of behavior, led us back to “illegal immigrant” again.

We concluded that to be consistent, we needed to change our guidance.

So we have.

Is this the best way to describe someone in a country without permission? We believe that it is for now. We also believe more evolution is likely down the road.

Changing the language changes the conversation. Several progressive publications have long stopped using “illegal immigrant,” including The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and Alternet. But after the AP made its change, the New York Times announced it was also considering new language on immigration. We can only hope that other mainstream media will follow suit.

Image by Favianna Rodriguez

Join the Conversation

  • Dan

    Is “Criminal” still the label applied to people who choose to violate the law? That hardly seems like less of a negative label to apply to people who have immigrated illegally.

    • Smiley

      A juvenile can be criminal. And a criminal can be juvenile. And a criminal can be a juvenile.

      The richness of English!

  • Steve

    So how is one to refer to one that came into the country illegal then?

  • Smiley

    I can understand the underlying feeling, but I have doubts about the consequences.

    Will there be any consequences? I mean, at all? Will any anti-immigrant fervour be allayed because a few newspapers (or all) change their style sheet? Really?

    And further, I think the argument detracts from the main point. I suggest, humbly, that all the energy spent on campaigning against the words would have been better spent on fighting the anti-immigrant fervour (or illegally-present-residents).

    The English language is amazingly flexible (nouns become adjectives, and vice versa, and adopts foreign terms easily (vice versa!)); if one term is displaced, another will take its place. Big deal. The word will disappear, but seldom will it make any difference.

    If a term is considered offensive, and no longer used in polite company, another term will be used. And then that new term will itself will take on a new, offensive, meaning. I’m sure you can come up with plenty of examples.

    As I often say, you can call my cleaning lady by whatever term you like, but she stills cleans the toilets.

  • Jessica

    I’m thrilled to see the change. My question, what is the best way to refer to them now? I work for a university newspaper and we’re writing a story about undocumented students. What is the most fair wording to use?