Why AP Dropping the Use Of “Illegal Immigrant” Matters

The Associated Press (AP) has announced it will stop using the term “illegal immigrant” both in the copy it produces and in its stylebook.

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?

Related Care2 Coverage

A Once Undocumented Immigrant Reflects Upon Obama’s Plan

Senator McCain Accuses Illegal Immigrants Of Causing Arizona Wildfires

Why Is Illegal Immigration Dropping In The US?

Photo Credit: thinkstock


Bill Reese
Bill Reese4 years ago

Well said, Amanda. Now if only we could get our Administration to understand what the word Illegal stand for in America.

Del Rykert
Del Rykert4 years ago

Thanks Amanda S.. You say it so well.. Wish I could send more stars your way..

Amanda S.
Amanda S4 years ago

Oh cripes! Let's not insult the people who have entered and reside in this country illegally.
It hurts their feelings. Aww! Let's be even more sensitive to those who disrespect our laws and our land by calling them "improperly documented yet outstanding person of foreign origin" and give them a little pat on the head.
Reparations must be made for our crude insensitivity to the new friends in our country who've chosen to bypass legal methods of obtaining residency.
We should give them money, housing, education, groceries, loans, a driver's license, and healthcare too.
Darn... we've already been doing that.
These "Undocumented Immigrants" have a word for tax-paying American citizens...

Bill Reese
Bill Reese5 years ago

Sarah H. Thank you for your common sense. When a person comes into the US Illegally, then he or she is illegal and if they do not like the word then leave, and come in legally. They are taking jobs from Americans, they are taking immigration positions from legals wanting to come into America. They are draining our social system of food, schools, and medical, yet people want to drop the word illegal? Astounding!

I am sending you a green star Sarah, I only wish I could sent a million of them to you.

Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill5 years ago

These people are here illegally no matter what you call them!

Del Rykert
Del Rykert5 years ago

Sharon T "
Words have power. Words have caused war, peace, tears, sorrow, pain, joy and laughter. Words matter. Language evolves to fit our current time. Bravo to the AP for moving us forward."

Afraid you got us heading int he wrong direction Sharon.. Even the votes of Care 2 members disagree with your view of the A.P. moving us forward.. A.P. has an Agenda and protecting the U.S. is not high on their list. Del R.

Sherri G.
Sherri G5 years ago

Good for you AP. I disagree that we are becoming a third world country because of illegal immigrants. The cause of our gaining on the 3rd World terminology is a direct result of corporations in this country. If corporations didn't stash their money in tax free countries, if they didn't ship American jobs to China, India, etc, if the top 2% of American taxpayers didn't control 98% of this country's wealth, etc. then this country could afford every American having health care, seniors would not be robbed of their earned social security and medicare, the government wouldn't be stealing from its disabled veterans and veteran's widows, animal and social causes wouldn't be in jeopardy, police and fire workers wouldn't be without their jobs. Finally our government cut the poorly designed F35 jet fighter worth 1.5 Trillion taxpayer dollars and quit making bombs the military doesn't want that would net billions and trillions more than taking from poor and middle class Americans. Illegals so long as they are not criminals and don't hurt anyone is not causing this country to be 3rd world that honor belongs to Corporate America.

Scott haakon
Scott haakon5 years ago

The article does point out some very important points about language. Self protection device vs assault rifle has a difference in emotional response. even when describing the same equipment.
However when one knowingly violates a law that exists in every country i know of;then illegal is correct.

Sharon Tyson
sharon Tyson5 years ago

Words have power. Words have caused war, peace, tears, sorrow, pain, joy and laughter. Words matter. Language evolves to fit our current time. Bravo to the AP for moving us forward.

Sarah M.
Sarah M5 years ago

Yes! This is a great step! :)