On Tuesday, the Associated Press (AP) announced a major change in the way it describes people with an unlawful presence in the U.S. Their Stylebook, used by journalists nationwide, no longer sanctions the terms "illegal" and "illegal immigrant" to refer to the undocumented. While Latino and immigrant advocacy groups hailed the AP's decision, many conservatives accused the organization of bowing to political correctness.
But this is not a question of mere political correctness. This is a question of accuracy, fairness, and respect. The Associated Press should be applauded for dropping the "I-word" because it is offensive to immigrants, Hispanics, and American values. "Illegal" is a loaded term that for too long has polluted the immigration debate.
The AP made the right decision because calling a person "illegal" disregards one of the cornerstones of our justice system, the presumption of innocence. Consider that when journalists report on a child molester or a serial killer, they are always careful to include the word "alleged" or "suspected." That's the correct thing to do by law, and the undocumented are entitled to the same protection. Only a judge can determine whether a person is in the country lawfully, not a journalist, or even a law enforcement official.
Bob Dane of the Federation for American Immigration Reform criticized the AP's new position. "What they're really doing is interjecting a form of bias in their reporting," he told Fox News Latino. Yet by dropping "illegal," the AP encourages better reporting. The vast majority of the undocumented are civil -- not criminal -- offenders, as being in the country unlawfully is a misdemeanor. Homeland Security officials estimate that 40 percent of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. did not enter the country illegally; they entered legally and then overstayed their visas. So "undocumented" or "unauthorized" are more precise terms for these immigrants than "illegal."
Although most of the undocumented are economic migrants, their ranks also include asylum seekers, refugees, and victims of traffickers. It is hurtful and needlessly punitive to tag them all with a negative label like "illegal" simply because they lack papers.
Still, the National Review Online ran a headline saying, "Open Borders Reporters Ban 'Illegal Immigrant." They are missing the bigger picture. The AP is wisely evolving along with society. The civil rights movement resulted in the end of usage of "Negro." In the 1970s, women successfully lobbied to be identified as "Ms." Now, dropping "illegal" reflects increased sensitivity to Hispanics. In a poll by Fox News Latino, 46 percent of Hispanics found "illegal" offensive. If nearly half of such a large demographic is offended by a word, it is time to retire it.
True, it can be easier for journalists to use the shorthand of "illegal" rather than the more cumbersome alternatives. But journalism should not be about the easy route. Besides, the "I-word" is often selectively applied. Celebrities from Eminem to Martha Stewart to Kiefer Sutherland have criminal records, and no one calls them "illegal." Why should we single out the most vulnerable and marginal among us as criminals? As the AP explained in a statement, "illegal" should refer to an activity, not a person.
The AP's move is especially commendable in light of the ongoing immigration debate. By moving away from simplistic, denigrating terms, we can move towards a deeper, more informed dialogue. And it may save lives, when we recognize that dehumanizing language can lead to violence. In 2008, Ecuadorian immigrant Marcelo Lucero was assaulted and killed in Patchogue, New York, by an attacker calling him an "illegal."
The AP is sending a powerful and positive message by dropping the "I-word." No human being is illegal, and it's time we all drop this harmful, inappropriate term.
Cross-posted at OtherWords.org