Goodbye, Illegal Immigrant: Controversial Term Deleted From AP Stylebook, As New York Times ‘Reconsiders It’

Following months of contentious debates over the use of “illegal immigrant” in news copy, the Associated Press has expunged the term from its AP Stylebook, the bible for news writers.

In a blog post on Tuesday (reported on here by Jim Romenesko), Kathleen Carroll, AP’s senior vice president and executive editor, announced the change:

“The Stylebook no longer sanctions the term ‘illegal immigrant’ or the use of ‘illegal’ to describe a person,” Carroll wrote. “Instead, it tells users that ‘illegal’ should describe only an action, such as living in or immigrating to a country illegally.”

The move is a departure from AP’s earlier stance in which it defended its usage. However, the change is consistent with AP’s general rules for describing people with adjective-to-noun conversions. For instance, the stylebook suggests referring to someone as being “diagnosed with schizophrenia” instead of calling someone “a schizophrenic.” The description of a person as being “illegal” was one of the biggest complaints from critics calling on AP, the New York Times and other news outlets to stop using the term “illegal immigrant.”

“You wouldn’t call someone who runs a red light an illegal driver,” Jose Antonio Vargas, a journalist and activist, told International Business Times in October.

Vargas, whose mother sent him to live in the United States from the Philippines when he was 12 years old, has been among the most vocal opponents of the term. In June 2011, he helped bring the debate into broader focus with his article “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant,” which was published in the New York Times Magazine. Ironically, the Times style guide still allows for the use of “illegal immigrant,” although the nuances behind its usage are likely to change soon. In a blog post late Tuesday, Margaret Sullivan, public editor of the Times, wrote that upcoming changes to the Times stylebook will provide for more alternatives to the term. The stylebook changes are expected to be announced to the Times staff sometime this week.

“From what I can gather, The Times’s changes will not be nearly as sweeping as The A.P.’s,” wrote Sullivan, who is not involved in the decision.

So what are the alternatives for AP writers? While Vargas and others, suggested “undocumented immigrant,” AP has not gone that far, explaining in the release that it rejected that term due because it was not precise enough: "A person may have plenty of documents, just not the ones required for legal residence." The new entry on “illegal immigrant,” which was posted immediately to the AP Stylebook Online, is not entirely clear on specific alternatives, but it states that acceptable variations include “living in or entering a country illegally or without legal permission.”

IBTimes reached out to Carroll for clarification, but she referred us back to the entry, which is posted in full below:

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.

Still confused? Click here to check out the full AP press release, but don’t expect miracles.

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