The Common Good

Words Matter: Why the AP Will No Longer Call People 'Illegal'

The Associated Press announced Tuesday it is dropping the term "illegal immigrant" from its Stylebook. Citing concern for “labeling people, instead of behavior,” AP’s Senior Vice President and Executive Editor, Kathleen Carroll, wrote, “The Stylebook no longer sanctions the term 'illegal immigrant' or the use of 'illegal' to describe a person. ...'Illegal' should describe only an action.

People march on International Workers' Day in LA to support immigration reform. Juan Camilo Bernal/shutterstock.com

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This change is a huge win for those working on immigration reform, including the staff at Sojourners. Last fall, Sojourners joined many others in calling on the Associated Press to change the term.

“The media’s usage of the word 'illegalis dehumanizing and distorting," 

wrote Sojourners Immigration Campaigns Fellow Ivone Guillen in October.

"When used by journalists, it introduces a bias into their reporting and risks prejudicing the reader against the needs, concerns, and humanity of immigrant communities, regardless of their documentation status.

With such a change, “our words will better encapsulate and reflect the basic truth that people are people who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. Period.” 

Through Sojourners’ campaign and action alert, more than 5,300 emails were sent to the AP Deputy Standards Editor. “Ending the use of this controversial phrase would create a more compassionate and accurate conversation about immigration,” read the Sojourners action alert. “It is a small change that could make a huge difference.”

This small change is a reversal of course from the Associated Press, which last October reaffirmed its decision to continue to use the term as it reflected “a legal reality.

As the standard for journalism, activists increasingly saw the AP as an unexpected but logical lynchpin for introducing empathy into our national dialogue on the immigration debate. Singled out by journalist and undocumented immigrant Jose Antonio Vargas and his group, Define American, Vargas elucidated his campaign to end the problematic term in TIME, explaining, “[D]escribing an immigrant as illegal is legally inaccurate. Being in the U.S. without proper documents is a civil offense, not a criminal one.”

He continued, “The term illegal is also imprecise … [most immigrants] have immediate family members who are American citizens, either by birth or naturalization — their immigration status is fluid and, depending on individual circumstances, can be adjusted.”

The AP responded to these calls for dignity and precision. Now, says Carroll, “[W]hile labels may be more facile, they are not accurate ... change is a part of AP Style because the English language is constantly evolving, enriched by new words, phrases and uses.”

Our language is constantly evolving. At its best, it does so in order to accurately represent and accommodate the increasingly diverse society it describes. Yesterday, the AP recognized this. It’s time for the national dialogue to follow suit.

The full guidance from the updated AP Stylebook is 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.

Catherine Woodiwiss is Associate Web Editor for Sojourners.

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