AP memo clarifies how to use the phrase ‘illegal immigrant’

In a memo to staffers today, the Associated Press clarified its stance on the term “illegal immigrant.” Tom Kent, deputy managing editor for standards and production, stressed that the AP doesn’t insist on using the term and said, in some cases, it’s not accurate.

The memo, AP Spokesman Paul Colford said by email, is in response to recent concerns about the AP’s use of the term, which many consider to be dehumanizing and inaccurate. At the Online News Association conference last month, activist Jose Antonio Vargas challenged news organizations to stop using the term, and said his first targets would be The New York Times and the AP.

“We’ve heard from many who echoed Jose Antonio Vargas’ concerns, as Tom indicates. So he’s using this forum — this standards-focused memo that he writes from time to time — to address the matter in greater detail to staff, just as we responded to outside media after Vargas’ ONA address,” Colford said via email, noting that the AP has gotten “periodic inquiries on ‘illegal immigrant’ for years.”

In the memo, Kent explains the AP’s reasoning for not using terms like “undocumented immigrants” or “unauthorized immigrants.”

Terms like “undocumented” and “unauthorized” can make a person’s illegal presence in the country appear to be a matter of minor paperwork. Many illegal immigrants aren’t “undocumented” at all; they may have a birth certificate and passport from their home country, plus a U.S. driver’s license, Social Security card or school ID. What they lack is the fundamental right to be in the United States.

Without that right, their presence is illegal. Some say the word is inaccurate, because depending on the situation, they may be violating only civil, not criminal law. But both are laws, and violating any law is an illegal act (we do not say “criminal immigrant”). Finally, there’s the concern that “illegal immigrant” offends a person’s dignity by suggesting his very existence is illegal. We don’t read the term this way. We refer routinely to illegal loggers, illegal miners, illegal vendors and so forth. Our language simply means that a person is logging, mining, selling, etc., in violation of the law — just as illegal immigrants have immigrated in violation of the law.

There are certain instances, Kent said, when the term “illegal immigrant” isn’t accurate — such as when referring to a child who was brought to the U.S. by parents who came here illegally. Kent doesn’t offer specific examples of when staffers should use “illegal immigrant,” but he does offer some best practices, including this one: “Be specific about nationalities. Don’t let terms like ‘illegal immigrants’ be used synonymously with one nationality or ethnic group.”

The AP Stylebook updated its entry on “illegal immigrant” last year to address the nuances of the term. Prior to the update, the Stylebook advised journalists to use the term “illegal immigrant” “to describe someone who has entered the country illegally.” The Stylebook now says the term can also be used to describe a person who “resides in a country in criminal or civil violation of immigration law.” Additionally, it advises against using terms like “illegals” and “illegal alien.”

“Illegal immigrant” is a complicated term that news organizations nationwide have debated. Following Vargas’ talk last month, The New York Times’ Phil Corbett told Poynter its reasoning for using the term:

In referring in general terms to the issue of people living in the United States without legal papers, we do think the phrases ”illegal immigrants” and “illegal immigration” are accurate, factual and as neutral as we can manage under the circumstances. It is, in fact, illegal to enter, live or work in this country without valid documents. Some people worry that we are labeling immigrants as “criminals” — but we’re not. ”Illegal” is not a synonym for “criminal.” (One can even park “illegally,” though it’s not a criminal offense.)

Some news organizations, including the San Antonio Express-News, have stopped using the term. (The Express-News has run several recent AP stories, however, that use the term.)

Rick Hirsch, managing editor of The Miami Herald, told me the paper stopped using the term at least a decade ago. Here’s what the paper’s style guide says about it:

Illegal immigrant: Do not use this term to assign to an individual or group, because in all likelihood we do not know the specific legal status of that person. The preferred term is undocumented immigrant. However, illegal immigration or illegal immigrant (not assigning legal status to an identifiable person) are acceptable in some uses. Examples: As an undocumented immigrant, she has run into trouble opening a bank account. The senator vowed to sponsor legislation to stem the influx of illegal immigrants from Mexico

The debate over whether or not to use “illegal immigrant” will continue. The best thing news organizations can do is have conversations amongst themselves — and perhaps with their audiences as well — about whether they should use it, when and why.

Related: An immigration lawyer responds to the AP’s guidelines, saying “AP needs to go back to the drawing board.”

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Egg-Man/681171228 Egg Man

    Mallary, are these words and phrases to be used with SCARE QUOTES or without? Does the AP say? ie, illegal immigrant no scare quotes or “illegal immigrant” with scare quotes? what does TOM KENT SAY re this issue of SQ?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Egg-Man/681171228 Egg Man

    Mallary, are these words and phrases to be used with SCARE QUOTES or without? Does the AP say? ie, illegal immigrant no scare quotes or “illegal immigrant” with scare quotes? what does TOM KENT SAY re this issue of SQ?

  • Barbara Griffith

    The Seattle Times a few months ago actually banned me for life from ever leaving a comment in the paper because I used the term “illegal alien” in a comment about illegal immigration. Talk about overkill. I almost never comment in the paper anyway but that basically is removing my right to free speech since the word illegal alien the US immigration service uses on all of their paperwork. The rag is not worth taking to court over it but that is just what all of the open border organizations are aiming for to stop any reference what so ever to the word illegal alien or illegal immigrant. These people are not in any way immigrants they are breaking the law being here.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Dean-Lockwood/1358060906 Dean Lockwood

    Quite possible that some AP stories have slipped through at the Express-News, but note that AP stories can appear in one of two ways: Most that appear on our website, mySA.com, come in raw from an AP feed. Those we don’t currently touch. Those that run through the copy desk for the print edition typically would be edited for our style preferences.

  • Anonymous

    As if the news industry isn’t already doing enough advocacy for illegal immigrants without rejection of language that that is factually accurate. There wouldn’t be anything wrong with using the term “illegal alien” as long as there was also use of the term “legal alien.” “Alien” is, in fact, a neutral term with respect to legality but unfortunately that isn’t true in practice.

    The journalist “conversation” about appropriate terminology ought to move to stopping the use of “anti-immigrant” and “immigrant-advocates” when referring to people or groups differing over illegal immigration issues. They need to stop conflating immigrants who are here legally with those that aren’t. Journalist should also consider ending the use word “reform” around immigration policies, except with attribution to people or groups making such a claim. Reform means to make something better but, given the ample evidence of divisions over immigration policy in this country, it should be obvious that those division would also be mirrored regarding what would constitute “reform.” To avoid advocating for a particular immigration policy, journalist ought to use neutral terms regarding changes people want to immigration laws or implementation of existing laws.

  • wigglwagon

    Immigration is a black and white issue. Either you immigrate legally or you do not. Webster says crime is “an act committed in violation of a law prohibiting it, or omitted in violation of a law ordering it; specif., any felony or misdemeanor except a petty violation of a local ordinance.” Webster also says alien means “belonging to another country or people, foreign.”

    Logically, people who did not immigrate legally are CRIMINALLY ALIEN people.

    The penalty for employers of illegal workers should be mandatory sentences of $15,000 fines and 2 years in jail per illegal worker. That and deportation of the illegal workers would put an immediate end to the problem.

    Embezzlers are not allowed to keep on embezzling until their day in court. Why are criminal immigrants allowed to keep practicing their crimes? Just letting them out on bail is like leaving embezzlers on the job with access to steal even more. Illegal immigrants should have to await their day in court in their own country.