Why AP Dropping the Use Of “Illegal Immigrant” Matters
Instead they will use the phrase “undocumented immigrant,” possibly emulating the French who refer to “les sans papers,” those without papers.
Since AP is the largest news-gathering outlet in the world, this decision could have a significant impact on news reporting. In addition, the influential AP Stylebook is widely used by newspapers, magazines, blogs and schools around the country. (A stylebook is a guide to usage, relied upon by writers and editors, for the purpose of consistency.)
AP made their announcement via a blog post on April 2.
The AP Stylebook today is making some changes in how we describe people living in a country illegally.
Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll explains the thinking behind the decision:
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.)
Carroll goes on to write:
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.
Carroll is making the important point that the distinction between “illegal immigrant” and “undocumented immigrant” is not just about semantics; as savvy politicians know, those carefully chosen words have the power to shape how people view the world.
The argument against the term “illegal immigrants” is that human beings are not themselves illegal, their actions are. The term dehumanizes those it describes, and it is also linguistically inaccurate.
Not Just Vocabulary Wars
These are not trivial vocabulary wars: the ways people use language can have enormous social and political consequences.
It’s something that those leading the struggle for common sense gun laws in this country have been struggling with. They are moving away from “gun control,” which might imply that the government is taking a person’s rights. “Gun safety” is one alternative choice, something that surely nobody could take issue with.
In a similar way, those of us involved in the abortion rights movement have recognized that when talking to the media, we use the term “pro choice” rather than “pro abortion.”
Growing up in England, I learned about the American War of Independence; arriving in the U.S., I read about the Revolutionary War. Our choice of words reflects our view of the world.
Republicans Urged To Drop “Illegal Immigrant”
The terminology used to describe the estimated eleven million people who do not have legal residence in the U.S. has been a topic of concern to politicians, too. The Hispanic Leadership Network, a conservative group, earlier this year issued a memo to Republicans asking them to stop using the term “illegal immigrant.”
As NPR reported:
“When talking about immigrants: Do use ‘undocumented immigrant’ when referring to those here without documentation,” the organization wrote. “Please consider these tonally sensitive messaging points as you discuss immigration, regardless of your position.”
The memo comes as Republicans among Latino voters, who voted overwhelmingly for President Obama in November, found that 46 percent of Latino voters think “illegal immigrants” is offensive.
According to ABC news, most of America’s top college newspapers and major TV networks, including ABC, NBC and CNN, have vowed to stop using the term.
What about that big holdout, The New York Times?
Right after the AP announcement, the newspaper issued this statement:
The Times, for the past couple of months, has also been considering changes to its stylebook entry on this term and will probably announce them to staff members this week.
Will The Times’ announcement be as sweeping as AP’s? What do you think?
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