The Associated Press dropped the term “illegal immigrant” from its style guide Tuesday, handing a victory to immigration rights advocates and Latino media organizations who have pressured the news media for years to abandon a phrase that many view as offensive.
The news was first announced in a statement from AP’s Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carrol on the wire service’s blog, who said the change resulted from conversations with people who opposed the term, as well as a commitment to eschew labels.
“Our goal always is to use the most precise and accurate words so that the meaning is clear to any reader anywhere,” Carrol said.
AP will also avoid sweeping labels like “undocumented” or “unauthorized” used by some in the news media who avoid the term “illegal immigrant.”
“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,” the style guide update says. “Except in direct quotations, do not use the terms illegal alien, an illegal, illegals or undocumented.”
Instead, the AP styleguide instructs reporters to specify how someone entered the country. Those brought to the country as minors “should not be described as having immigrated illegally,” the guide says.
The National Association of Hispanic Journalists first pushed the news media to stop referring to immigrants without lawful immigration status as “illegal” in 2006, arguing that the term criminalizes people rather than their actions. Almost half of likely Latino voters find the term “illegal immigrant” offensive, according to a Fox News Latino poll published last year.
The NAHJ was later joined by the Applied Research Center and its publication ColorLines, which pressured the media to “Drop the I-Word,” calling it a “racially charged slur used to dehumanize and discriminate against immigrants and people of color regardless of migratory status.”
But pressure to drop the term “illegal immigrant” ramped up last year, as Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and immigrant rights activist Jose Antonio Vargas and ABC/Univision News openly challenged the New York Times and the Associated Press to change their stylebooks. At the time, the AP said it would restrict its use of the term illegal immigrant without dropping it entirely, while the New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan said she continued to view it as the appropriate word choice.
"It is clear and accurate; it gets its job done in two words that are easily understood," Sullivan wrote in October. "The same cannot be said of the most frequently suggested alternatives – 'unauthorized,' 'immigrants without legal status,' 'undocumented.'"
Vargas welcomed AP's decision to strike the term entirely.
“This was inevitable. This is not about being politically correct," Vargas said in an interview with Poynter.
The AP’s new policy leaves the New York Times increasingly isolated. Several news organizations, particularly in television, have abandoned the term “illegal immigrant” -- an editorial decision likely prompted by networks’ efforts to attract the growing U.S. Hispanic market. CNN, ABC News, and NBC News have all excised the term in recent years, according to ABC/Univision News. Fox News Latino, a digital property of the Fox News empire, uses the term “undocumented” to refer to those without legal immigration status.
The Huffington Post uses the term “undocumented immigrant” to refer to those without lawful immigration status.
UPDATED: The New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan writes on her blog that the paper is also considering changing its stylebook. She writes:
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. (A stylebook is the definitive guide to usage, relied upon by writers and editors, for the purpose of consistency.)
From what I can gather, The Times’s changes will not be nearly as sweeping as The A.P.’s.
Read the rest of the explanation at the New York Times.
This post was updated at 5:10 p.m. on Tuesday, April 2, 2013.