Why the Word ‘Illegal’ Is Out of AP Style

Takepart.comApril 5, 2013

As of last Tuesday, there is no such thing as an illegal human being in United States. At least, that is, according to the Associated Press.

On April 2, the organization, widely considered the oldest and largest newsgathering service in the world, made its own news: Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll announced on the company’s blog that the AP will cease from referring to undocumented immigrants as “illegal.”

The company’s esteemed 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….



From Kathleen Carroll’s release:

Change is a part of AP Style because the English language is constantly evolving, enriched by new words, phrases and uses. Our goal always is to use the most precise and accurate words so that the meaning is clear to any reader anywhere.

The AP’s move to limit and clarify the use of “illegal” was a particularly welcome one for immigration activists.

Three years ago the website Colorlines launched a campaign to convince media entities to “Drop the I-Word,” meaning “illegal,” from coverage of immigration issues. Early efforts attempting to convince the AP to abandon “illegal” in favor of “undocumented,” however, were rebuffed.

“[D]espite ardent support from some quarters [we didn’t make the change] because it is not precise,” wrote Carroll. “A person may have plenty of documents, just not the ones required for legal residence…

“Spanish media has used the word ‘undocumented’ for many years. We would also be happy with ‘unauthorized.’ ”

“While labels may be more facile, they are not accurate.”

The AP’s decision isn’t monumental only because of the news organ’s widespread readership. The company’s journalistic stylebook—where the changes will be enshrined—is the gold standard for copy editing and vocabulary usage that hundreds of other mainstream journalistic entities follow.

“The AP stylebook is the bible for journalists across the country,” says Inez Gonzalez, executive vice president of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, which partnered with Colorlines on its Drop the I-Word campaign. “Taking a stand to disown the word illegal is huge. This was a moment many years in the works.”

Even news organizations that don’t follow the AP’s style guidelines may be forced into action by the AP’s move.

“On ‘illegal immigrants’: I'm told that @nytimes is also working on revisions to its usage guidelines to ‘provide more nuance and options,’ ” New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan tweeted on Tuesday.

Gonzalez tells TakePart that these changes aren’t purely semantic; they could wind up saving lives.

“The word ‘illegal’ is very powerful. We got involved on this issue after a national poll we conducted revealed that the word illegal elevated negative feeling toward the Latino community in general. Our polls showed that 30 percent of non-Latinos feel all Latinos are here illegally.”

That perception has lead to violence.

In 2010, Marcelo Lucero, an Ecuadorian immigrant, was stabbed to death in Brooklyn—his assailants yelling “f***ing illegal” while committing the act.

“Latinos have faced an increase in hate crimes in recent years,” says Gonzalez. “66 percent of hate crimes are targeted at Latinos. The word ‘illegal’ has played a big part in dehumanizing and criminalizing the Latino community.”

As evidence of the power of the language, in response to the AP’s decision, the anti-immigrant PAC Americans for Legal Immigration announced it would start calling undocumented immigrants “illegal invaders.”

Gonzalez, however, says efforts like these are ultimately futile, as rational people across America can easily recognize that the term “illegal” is inaccurate—marijuana smokers break the law but aren’t considered “illegal”—and carries dangerous consequences.

“Words matter,” insists Gonzalez. “We’re pleased to see the cultural shift taking place. Spanish media has used the word ‘undocumented’ for many years. We would also be happy with ‘unauthorized.’ If there were more people of color in top positions in the national media, we would have seen this shift happen long beforehand. This just confirms how important it is to have diversity at the top of the masthead.”

Senator John McCain of Arizona recently said he would continue using the word illegal to describe immigrants. Explain why McCain is right or wrong in COMMENTS.

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• Asian Immigration Leaves all Others Behind

Matthew Fleischer is a former LA Weekly staff writer and an award-winning social justice reporter in Los Angeles. Email Matt