Despite criticism, AP Stylebook dictates that journalists use ‘illegal immigrant’

When reporting on people who are in the U.S. without permission, should journalists refer to them as “illegal” or “undocumented”?

The answer depends on who you ask.

The AP Stylebook advises journalists to use “illegal immigrants.” But some journalists and news consumers say this term is dehumanizing and legally inaccurate. And because it’s a civil — and not a criminal — violation in the U.S., some argue that “illegal immigration” wrongly implies criminality.

AP Deputy Standards Editor David Minthorn says he and the other two Stylebook editors have taken people’s criticism into consideration but are still advising journalists to use “illegal immigrant.” Last week, the Stylebook updated its definition of this term to make it more nuanced.

Prior to the update, the Stylebook said “illegal immigrant” should be used “to describe someone who has entered the country illegally.” Now, it says the term should also be used to describe anyone who “resides in a country in criminal or civil violation of immigration law.” Additionally, it says that “living in the country without legal permission” is an acceptable variation of “illegal immigrant.”

The Stylebook made the update for clarity’s sake, and to acknowledge that the laws on illegal immigration vary around the world. “We want to emphasize that there is a law aspect to this, and we’re trying to capture that in our entry,” Minthorn said. “Specifying it’s a civil law violation in some countries is a way to broaden that reference.”

The Stylebook entry also says to not use “undocumented,” “illegal alien,” “illegals” or “illegal” to describe immigrants. “Undocumented,” Minthorn said, “suggests that the issue is more about paperwork than one’s legal right to be in a county.”

“We feel that the term is sometimes used to indicate that it’s not really a legal violation,” he said. “We’re trying to be neutral, and if we adopt that term in every case it would be imprecise. So, we just prefer not to use it at all.”

The Stylebook adopted the term “illegal immigrant” in 2004 following post 9/11 discussions about border security. Previously, Minthorn said, there were simply entries for “immigration” and “emigration.” Throughout the past couple of years, Minthorn has responded to queries from journalists who have wanted a more detailed explanation of the Stylebook’s definition of “illegal immigrant.”

“This is no doubt a reflection of the public discussion about immigration and related issues — the economy, political campaigns, the DREAM Act, border security, etc.,” Minthorn said. “My impression from reading published accounts of the explanation is that AP’s position gets a fair airing, even if not everyone agrees.”

Michele Salcedo, political desk anchor at the AP and president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, doesn’t agree with the AP’s style. “Illegal immigrant,” she said, oversimplifies the complexities of immigration.

“Using the word ‘illegal’ to describe an immigrant puts journalists in the position of being judge and jury,” she said via email. “It casts all immigration cases as black and white: legal or illegal. That leaves little room for this most complicated law’s nuances.”

There’s a tendency to carelessly use the term “illegal” when reporting on immigration, Salcedo said: “In every other legal context, whether criminal or civil, journalists are scrupulously taught, and editors keep a close eye on copy, to make sure someone accused of a crime or violation isn’t convicted in the story, that they have a right to the presumption of innocence,” she said. “The coverage of immigration is the exception to those journalistic standards.”

NAHJ uses “undocumented” instead of “illegal,” and has urged others to use it, too. Similarly, the Society of Professional Journalists voted earlier this fall to recommend that media outlets stop using the term “illegal alien” and re-evaluate “illegal immigrant.”

In 2010, the online magazine Colorlines launched a “Drop the I-Word” campaign aimed at getting the media and elected officials to stop using “illegal” to describe people who are in the country without permission. It encourages journalists to use terms such as “undocumented immigrant,” “unauthorized immigrant,” and “immigrant without papers” instead.

The campaign has gotten some sites and organizations to pledge that they’ll drop the i-word. Most recently, Unity joined the campaign. The campaign set up a #droptheiword hashtag, which news consumers have been using to call out news organizations for their use of the word.

Monica Novoa, coordinator of the Drop the I-Word public education campaign, is hopeful that more journalists and news consumers will stop using the word. “History is on our side,” she said via email. “The n-word and dehumanizing terms against lots of groups of people have been challenged and there has always at first been resistance.”

Novoa thinks media outlets that still use the i-word as a descriptor are behind the times.

“There is a growing division, between institutions like the AP that want to hold on to this racially charged term, and people and journalists that are calling for accuracy and respectful terms,” Novoa said. “SPJ and UNITY get it. The Associated Press has to decide if they want to be known as an organization that is dictating the use of legally inaccurate, racially charged, dehumanizing language. They are not with the times right now and it damages their credibility.”

Many news outlets, including The New York Times and the Fresno Bee, still use “illegal immigrant.” The Fresno Bee was criticized last year for its use of the term in a seven-day series on immigration. Executive Editor Betsy Lumbye responded by telling readers: “Unfortunately, there is no perfect term. We think we’ve chosen the best option, but recognize that others disagree for various reasons.”

Last year, the San Antonio Express News replaced the “unauthorized immigrant” entry in its Ethics and Practices Policy with a new definition for “illegal immigration.” The paper then published a note to readers explaining why it made this change.

The Los Angeles Times, which uses “illegal immigrant” and “undocumented immigrant” synonymously, also published a piece earlier this year about the terminology it uses. The piece acknowledged that some readers have wondered why the Times uses both terms, while others have criticized the paper for using “immigrant” instead of “alien.”

These semantic debates are proof that the language journalists use to describe people matters. Having conversations about language can lead us to think more carefully about the words we use and why we use them. And they can be good reminders that as language evolves, our style guides should too.

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  • Anonymous

    So, if I park in a handicapped spot without a valid placard, I’m not doing anything illegal, just undocumented?  I’ll tell the judge I shouldn’t pay the fine because legal “nuance” allows me to assert my right as a “hopeful handicapped.”

    I’ve worked a lot with immigration issues. Someone is either here on a visitor “nonimmigrant visa” for a certain permitted time period or has a Notice of Action showing a current legal immigration status. Someone who is living in the US without either proof has illegal presence in the US.  Where is the gray area? 

    Even in the few cases where someone does successfully argue reasons to convert to legal status while they remain here in illegal status, it never retroactively changes the period of time they lived here illegally.

    I am offended that advocates for lax immigration — for which there are valid arguments, but that’s a separate issue – would assert that factual references to illegal immigrants are synonymous with the derogatory “n word.”  Being black isn’t a choice and isn’t a matter of legality.  People who criticize illegal immigrants are criticizing their choice to behave in violation of US law, not their race, social status or anything else outside their control.  That comparison makes a mockery of the social dysfunctions of bigotry, IMHO.

  • Anonymous

    Whaddya mean there is no perfect term?  What about “hopeful American”? 

  • P. J. Connolly

    It’s not PC, but it is accurate; my only surprise is the lack of comment from Brother Matt.

  • Esteban L. Hernandez

    We just had a discussion about this in my journalism class at CU-Boulder. One of my peers pointed out that by using one term (undocumented) over another (AP’s illegal) immigrant, it demonstrates bias on my behalf. I thought it was a good point. But honestly, we need to clear this up. I am an aspiring journalist, and I want to cover immigration when I graduate. It would really help.

  • Anonymous

    Just because your monicker is Britannicus does not give you license to drop a tome into a blog. Journalists practice being succinct.

  • Anonymous

    WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW—HURTS?  Illegal Immigration, Voter fraud and E-Verify.


    Every American can do their part,
    to insure that ‘THE LEGAL WORKFORCE ACT’ (H.R.2885) and get to the floor of the
    House of Representatives. It’s the only way to get future satisfaction of
    saving the billions of dollars we give reluctantly, to illegal aliens.
    E-Verify–the bill would require 100% of businesses to begin using E-Verify for
    all new hires within 2 years and require all federal and state governments to
    check new hires and existing employees within 6 months. Although the official
    figures estimates there are only 11.5 million illegal aliens in the US, other
    reputable organizations exceeds this number by at least another 10 million. Of
    these 8.5 foreign nations have claimed a job unlawfully, while 22 to 24 million
    citizens and legally here residents are unemployed. These are non-agricultural
    numbers and this could be reduced by the immediate vote of ‘The legal Workforce



    Unknown numbers of illegal
    families began departing Arizona, Alabama, South Carolina, with the
    introduction of harsh policing laws and headed for other states with more
    flexible immigration laws—California and Nevada included.  Sanctuary States will be overwhelmed, with economic
    illegal aliens, looking for free money and other easy accessed welfare
    benefits. Thousands of American workers are already replacing the illegal
    absconders, as business have no option but to look elsewhere for labor. The
    days of cheap illegal labor is over and so are the big profits they have for


    There is no time to wait, as
    E-Verify must become mandatory, instead as it is now—voluntary. Hundreds of
    thousands of businesses are now hooked up to the electronic program and can now
    vet their workers. Businesses that are not using E-Verify needs to learn an
    expensive lesson of harsh fines, company profit confiscation and prison for
    hiring unauthorized labor. Rick Perry unlike most of the others, is true GOP
    establishment and not a member of the TEA PARTY leadership.


    Citizens and legal residents must
    challenge the Republicans dominated House and insist on E-Verify. The ‘Ways and
    Means Committee led by Majority Speak John Boehner (R-OH) must adopt the Mandatory E-Verify Bill (H.R. 2885.) and should be bombarded with insistent
    voters. Reps. Chip Cravaack (R-Minn.), Tim Johnson (R-Ill.), Reps.
    Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.V.) and Joe Walsh (R-Ill.) have cosponsored House
    Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith’s Legal Workforce Act (H.R.2885), with new
    members to sponsor in the forthcoming wings.  
    Not sure what to do? Go to
    NumbersUSA web site, where you can freely fax politicians or you can also can
    locate them through this phone number at 202-224-312; the Congressional Switchboard.


    of last Friday, November 4, 2011 currently has 54 sponsors and 32 co-sponsors.


    Our freedoms and liberty are under constant attack by the
    Liberals, Democrats and even hard core Republicans, so that’s why everybody is
    fed up with the usual trash from Washington; ‘The Quid Pro Quo’ should join the
    massive population of the growing TEA PARTY. We must anticipate that in the
    2011 Presidential race, the impending gubernatorial and state legislative
    elections in Louisiana, Mississippi and West Virginia will be electing governors.
    . In addition, 578 state legislative seats are available, with the
    majority  of these in Louisiana,
    Mississippi, New Jersey and Virginia where the fate of politicians are in the
    hands of voters. ILLEGAL ALIENS HAVE
    BEEN VOTING AND WILL IN THE FUTURE. Democrats are looking the other way, as
    this has been happening nationwide. We must be watchful of Congressman as Keith
    Ellison, who could cripple our voting system. Ellison would weaken our nation’s
    policies even more so, than the voting regulations are already so poorly


    In agriculture, the dairy industry for decades they have
    been substantial subsidies, but that has not filtered through to the illegal
    workers. Poor wages and even poorer conditions will not bring US citizens and
    lawful residents to the farmers or others need. The American people are finally
    aware that the farmers do not pay for the hospital care in case of injury,
    sickness and that all their children go to public schools and these benefits;
    fall in to the US taxpayers lap to pay. Eventually a uniform system of tracking
    agricultural worker, with employment visa over-stays deported.



    Secretary of State’s office is obligated to administer elections and investigate
    allegations of voter fraud. Brian P. Kemp, who is Georgia Secretary of State, said that Georgia’s elections are among the most secure in the
    nation, and we take every measure possible to guarantee the integrity,
    security, and fairness of our elections process. Election voter fraud
    undermines the very foundations of our great state and country, and will not be
    tolerated under any circumstances. Then in the Liberal Progressive window or a
    leftist Democrat Congressman called Keith Ellison from Minnesota’s wants
    to impose on his state a slack election system and also on the rest of this sovereign
    nation. This moron has introduced two bills to impose the worst two
    aspects of Minnesota’s system on the entire country. This arrangement
    undermines election integrity and trust we used to share as citizens. 


    This Democrat “Same Day
    Registration Act” H.R. 3316 and its attendant H.R. 3317 would involve all
    states to allow unconfirmed voters to register and vote on Election Day. This
    would be outrageous enough and is mild compared to being infuriated by the
    second bill, namely “Voter Access Protection Act,” which would forbid states
    from requiring voters to show photo ID.  Perhaps 25 years ago—but not
    anymore, when we have notorious groups like Acorn, caught using low-life’s
    collecting hundreds of thousands of registrations, which should have been flushed
    down the toilet. Democrats are out to win the presidential race, in any way
    they can—and have, as ACORN was prosecuted by numerous state attorneys for
    fraudulent voter registrations. Its federal funding dropped a supposedly
    dismantled, but however it has resurfaced in New York under a new name.  To me and I’m sure to tens of millions of TEA
    PARTY members this is beyond incredulous, that any politician would try to
    destroy what little is left of our freedoms. Under no restraint H.R. 3316, in
    expelling all photo identification necessities, and H.R. 3317, that would allow
    people to walk into a polling station, register and vote straight away in all
    50 states. GOD HELP US!


    America can no longer support the poverty entering this country.
    If we don’t look after our own veterans, our own homeless, how we supposed to
    be the PPO health care for the world. This is an invitation to financial
    disaster, when large parts of the 16 percent living in poverty are illegal
    migrants and immigrants


    Rep. Ellison states his proposals
    are needed to “curb voter suppression” and shield the rights of young, elderly and
    minority voters, except photo ID laws in 14 other states have been challenged
    in America and state Supreme Courts and plaintiffs have no evidence that a
    single voter would be disenfranchised by those laws. Perhaps Mr. Ellison should
    investigate the growing trend of illegal aliens or even permanent residence,
    either by being misled by registration canvassers or using ‘The Motor Voter’
    bill to vote. This is extremely dangerous in very close races and has been prevalent
    in many states throughout the nation. Hopefully the citizens of Vermont see
    through this reckless law, and drive this unpatriotic fool from Montpelier.


    The state of Georgia maintains a
    website for US citizens or any individual to inform the Secretary of State of
    violations in their voting law. In fact every American state should provide a
    website to report this serious wrongdoing, as it is undermining the basic
    foundation of citizen’s right to vote. This is not just a threat within a the
    polling stations, but where anybody could walk in and profess to be a citizen,
    Under bills introduced by Rep. Ellison brought to  Congress or in his own state of Vermont would
    have irredeemable consequence  to our
    electoral system. , One of the easiest documents to forge—is the absentee
    ballot. Outside of the influence of a Secretary of State’s Elections Division
    is easily compromised.


    We already have almost
    indescribable problems with the illegal aliens side-stepping our borders, or
    slipping through air terminals.  Every
    American state should power their politicians to supply a law, that every
    American has a government photo ID to vote. In addition today when our country
    is carrying a near 15 Trillion deficit, we need to start repatriating all
    illegal foreign nationals. When our elderly cannot find a seat in a clogged
    emergency room, as the hospital has become overpopulated with illegal parents
    and their children. That these impoverished people have no conception of the
    cost for a minor infection, an Aspirin or major treatment. That these are unfunded
    mandates, which include the education of their many children, is carried by the
    US taxpayers.


    Overcrowded public school
    classroom, congested hospital emergency waiting rooms, is what’s seen above the
    surface—the massive financial costs are hidden below. Over a $113 Billion
    dollars is attributed to subsidizing foreign aliens, so surveyed by a Heritage
    foundation report.


    No matter where these
    undocumented are from, they must go home. This is where Lamar Smiths E-VERIFY
    is so urgently important. The ‘LEGAL WORKFORCE ACT’ will shift the legal
    responsibility, over to the employer. They will be charged with insuring every
    worker fills in a I-9 form and identifies the recipient, who has been hired.
    That the business owner checks their ’Right to Work’ verification through the
    federal E-Verify process. Those who are ineligible can verify their lawful
    status, through appearing at the nearest Social Security office, to rectify any
    problem. Of course No Liberal associated newspaper pass this information,
    staying silent about any irregularities as they are determined to cripple any
    chance of this commonsense bill from becoming law.

  • Anonymous

    “In 2010, the online magazine Colorlines launched a “Drop the I-Word” campaign aimed at getting the media and elected officials to stop using “illegal” to describe people who are in the country without permission. It encourages journalists to use terms such as “undocumented immigrant,” “unauthorized immigrant,” and “immigrant without papers” instead.”–Do mean that ILLEGAL LAWBREAKERS do NOT like to be called as such????-AND by that same measure then bank robbers would like their Illegal activities referred to as: unauthorized withdrawals????–get a LIFE!!!–would you prefer that Illegals be referred to as: scum-sucking ILLEGALS that came here to commit ID FRAUD, drop litters of ANCHORS babies so they can then steal, wic, welfare, medicaid, chips, sell their Am. born kids ssi’s to make MORE $$ & commit MORE fraud, & oh yes & also pay no income taxes but submit to the IRS for a UIN#, so they can then claim the child tax credit, even though they’ve paid NO taxes into the system…!!!–Soooo, there is NO question, these people are CRIMINALS!!!–Stop the Madness!–Sign the Petition…Lobby Your State Gov’t to Enforce Existing Immigration Laws!

  • Poynter

    Thanks, Matt. I liked that you wrote a note to readers explaining the policy at the newspapers you oversee: Transparency is always helpful in situations like this.


  • Matt DeRienzo

    Great explanation of this debate. It deserves the attention you gave it here.