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.

  • Mallary Jean Tenore

    As managing editor of The Poynter Institute’s website,, 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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