AP does its own immigration reform to mixed reviews

As the Senate moves toward introducing bipartisan immigration reform legislation this week, the nation turns its sights from the battle on marriage equality to illegal immigration.  While attitudes clash over the best way to approach reform, media outlets have already begun to change the way journalists write about it that is causing quite the controversy.

David Delgado / The Daily Cougar

David Delgado / The Daily Cougar

On April 2, the Associated Press dropped the dreaded ‘i word’ or, to be more specific, the term ‘illegal immigrant’ from its stylebook, arguably the most widely used guide by journalists. However, instead of receiving full-on praise the organization deserves for removing a stigmatizing label, they received some mixed reviews.

The news of the change broke post by AP blogger Paul Colford and explained by Kathleen Carroll, AP senior vice president and executive editor, that “illegal” labeled people and that labels are making their way out of the stylebook.

“(W)e had in other areas been ridding the Stylebook of labels,” Carroll said.

“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. 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.”

According to the new entry, “illegal” will only be used to refer to an action and not a person — “illegal immigration” is OK, “living in” or “entering a country illegally” or “without legal permission” are accepted variations, but “illegal immigrant” is right out. Also, people can’t be described as violating immigration laws without attribution. It’s not exactly tight writing, but the heart is in the right place.

Political science senior Jocelyn Bermudez agrees with AP’s decision as a positive step toward immigration reform.

“I do agree with them changing the terminology because at least it’s showing that it’s such an important issue that it’s trying to be reformed,” Bermudez said.

However, there is some backlash to be found. Fox News personality Greta Van Susteren questioned the move in her blog.

“The law is specific — whether you like the or not — about being in this country legally or illegally,” Susteren said.

“If you do not meet the terms of being here legally, you are here illegally, right? But apparently the AP has other ideas. Perhaps the AP would prefer describing someone as an immigrant (not illegal immigrant) who is illegally here or violating the law as a criminal? I think criminal sounds much worse.”

Others, like English senior Molly Hicks, find the move ridiculous exercise in political correctness.

“Making more words ‘politically incorrect’ is a very dumb thing to do, and it just makes people get offended over absolutely nothing. I think it’s stupid,” Hicks said.

Van Susteren does have a valid point: just because there is a terminology change doesn’t mean that the action is changed, and it seems like the AP is splitting hairs over the label.

French and interior architecture junior Babirye Nteza said the change in terminology does not change the issue at hand.

“I don’t agree with it only because I don’t think it’s going to make a difference, like what the actual policies are going to be like,” Nteza said.

“I feel like it is like changing the cover in order not to deal with the real issue.”

People like Van Susteren underestimate the full power of language. There are a few examples that we’ve seen in our recent history that either helped movements or aided the arguments they made.

Recently, an evolution has occurred regarding the marriage equality debate. Only a few years ago, the movement to allow the marriage of two people of the same sex was referred to as the “gay marriage movement.” Later, the reference changed then same-sex marriage as the term “gay” refers primarily to men and was rechristened as the “same-sex marriage movement.”

Still, that term seemed isolated, so it was recently rechristened the “marriage equality movement,” bringing “traditional marriage” under the umbrella that all marriages between two people are equal.

These small changes in our vernacular have deep impacts on society. The changes might seem minute and unimportant, but the reason they are is because they work. The words used affect how the issue is understood.

When talking about immigration, it is easy to call someone “illegal” because in a sense, they did do something illegal; however, it is a civil violation, like speeding, and not a criminal violation. There are real human faces and emotions behind this controversial issue, and while changing the term might seem irrelevant, they force people to frame the conversation in a different, and ultimately, a more respectful light.

Alex Caballero is a creative writing senior and may be reached at [email protected].


  • There is more to it than that. Being undocumented is not a criminal matter, it is a civil matter. We do not lock people up for committing a crime and then deport them, we simply deport them. It is not illegal in the same sense that robbing or assualting someone is. Illegal immigrant is a term engineered to marginalize undocumented immigrants- words matter. The AP is right to do this.

    • Cheating on a test is not criminal; lying to your clergy is not a crime; calling in sick at work when you just want a day off is not a crime. All those things, however, are dishonest. So is sneaking into a country and hiding from authorities; it is grossly insulting to those who work hard to get and stay here legally, and who defend their rights to do so; those who stay here illegally shouldn’t get a pass or prettier labels when they’ve used a back alley route. A thing doesn’t have to be criminal to be wrong.

  • How about using “unlawfully present” in place of “illegal” in our terminology?

    For both those migrants with papers and those without, the real issue is this: some people care about violations (of laws or other government rules) that enabled the migrants we’re talking about to reside in the country. And those people often don’t care whether the migrant is blameless because someone else (human traffickers, parents of DREAMers, etc) caused the violations.

    Some people claim that the term “illegal” is demeaning or pejorative. Even if that could be proven, we could ask: why do those migrants deserve to be spared from that kind of term, given those violations I just mentioned? The migrants usually are willing beneficiaries of those violations, and often will commit more violations in order to stay in the USA.

    Activists are demanding that people stop referring to the migrants as “illegal”. Then they should suggest something much more accurate, something that captures the fact that those violations occurred (because the violations are what people care about and are the defining characteristic of the migrants we are talking about). Why should people settle for a misleading term like “undocumented” just to avoid the alleged possibility of stigmatization?

    We could say “unauthorized” instead of “illegal”. But then people could just say, “No human being is unauthorized.” So I guess that would solve nothing.

    A specific individual should not be described as “illegal” while his/her immigration status is unproven. But the term is often used to refer to a group of people known to exist in the USA (or whichever destination country is being discussed), and the appropriateness of the label for them is debatable.

    Saying “no human being is illegal” is a misleading slogan. I believe that few or no participants in the recent immigration debate ever seriously believed that people can be inherently illegal. I doubt that adults considering immigration issues believe the term “illegal immigrant” means that. The term is understood to have a different meaning.

    Instead, some people claim that a person’s presence in a particular place, or crossing a particular boundary, at a particular time can be the result of some kind of violation. Other people believe that such a presence is itself some kind of violation. I believe these are the two widely intended meanings of “illegal immigrant”. Unfortunately, it’s not always clear which of those two is meant, but both involve illegality so maybe that doesn’t matter.

    It’s true that we don’t describe people in other kinds of situations as illegal. For example, we don’t use “illegal drivers” to refer to those who get speeding tickets, or “illegal employers” to refer to those who knowingly hire employees who lack a legal right to work. But why are these migrants entitled to equality of terminology? The English language has other quirky terminology that we don’t worry about, because we know the intended meaning. We know the approximate intended meaning of this term “illegal”. Must this term have a legalistic degree of precision? Do we really need to get rid of it?

    It’s true that “illegal immigrant” is not thoroughly accurate terminology. But why is “undocumented” any better? For some of the migrants we are talking about, there do exist various documents related to their citizenship or residency.

  • I think we should call them something nice and fluffy like, “inappropriately located” because we wouldn’t want to be bullies and meanies and offend anyone who’s here illegally. After all, they have feelings and even if they are here under the radar maybe doing illegal things, we don’t want to be cruel and punitive by being offensive with our language now do we? PC in = brains out.

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