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."

  • Mallary Jean Tenore

    As managing editor of The Poynter Institute’s website, Poynter.org, I report on the media news industry, edit the site’s How To section, and moderate the site's live chats. I also help handle the site's social media efforts, and teach social media sessions on the side.


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