Associated Press

The Associated Press is changing its Stylebook entry on the term “illegal immigrant,” the news cooperative announced Tuesday. The new entry reads in part:

illegal immigration Entering or residing in a country in violation of civil or criminal law. Except in direct quotes essential to the story, use illegal only to refer to an action, not a person: illegal immigration, but not illegal immigrant. Acceptable variations include living in or entering a country illegally or without legal permission.

In a statement, AP Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll says the change came, in part, because of ongoing work at AP dedicated to “ridding the Stylebook of labels.”

Immigration is just one area where AP is doing such work, Carroll says in the statement. Now it recommends “Saying someone was ‘diagnosed with schizophrenia’ instead of schizophrenic, for example.”

Reached by phone, Carroll elaborated on the AP’s struggle against labels: “It’s kind of a lazy device that those of use who type for a living can become overly reliant on as a shortcut,” she said. “It ends up pigeonholing people or creating long descriptive titles where you use some main event in someone’s life to become the modifier before their name.”

Carroll said she expected people to comb AP’s work and Stylebook for other examples, engagement she said she welcomed.

AP’s earlier decision to stick with “illegal immigrant” was “the best we thought at the time,” Carroll said, “of a bunch of choices that were relatively unsatisfying.” Pushback from advocates didn’t influence AP’s thinking, she said. (Jose Antonio Vargas, a former Washington Post and Huffington Post reporter who founded the advocacy organization Define American, has urged both AP and The New York Times to find a less loaded descriptor.)

Reached by phone, Vargas said, “This was inevitable. This is not about being politically correct.”

“What I hope is this is just the beginning of a conversation for newsrooms across America,” Vargas said. He added that he was particularly interested in speaking with New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan, who wrote the term is “clear and accurate.” Vargas said he’s looking forward to hearing what news organizations like the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post will do.

“I have heard from at least 20 undocumented journalists, many of them still in journalism school,” Vargas said. “I’m not the only one.”

Via email, New York Times Associate Managing Editor for Standards Phil Corbett says “We’ve been discussing some possible revisions in our guidance on these terms for a couple of months. Coincidentally, we had been expecting to send a memo to the staff soon, possibly this week.”

Sullivan tweeted something similar:

“We have a long record of being able to look at this calmly and say what does the language precisely say here and does it say that to anyone in any country who speaks English, whatever their origins,” Carroll said.

“We’re not saying this is the usage that will live forever, either,” she said. “We’re actually hoping the language and the usage evolves to create a solution that is even more precise and accurate.”

AP Deputy Managing Editor Tom Kent said in an October 2012 memo to staffers that the term “illegal immigrant” was the appropriate term to describe those who live in the U.S. without proper documentation or legal status:

“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.”

AP had said the term was accurate for some, but not all, immigrants without proper legal status or documentation. For example, Kent said the term was not accurate for a child who was brought to the U.S. by his or her parents; the child would not be an “illegal immigrant” by choice.

In the October memo, Kent did not say when to use the term “illegal immigrant,” but instead advised staffers as to the best practices relevant to the term.

Prior to Tuesday’s change, the AP Stylebook advised journalists to use the term “to describe someone who has entered a country illegally or who resides in a country in violation of civil or criminal law.” It said only to use the phrase if knowledge of a person’s immigration status came from “reliable information.”

Here’s the whole new Stylebook entry:

illegal immigration Entering or residing in a country in violation of civil or criminal law. Except in direct quotes essential to the story, use illegal only to refer to an action, not a person: illegal immigration, but not illegal immigrant. Acceptable variations include living in or entering a country illegally or without legal permission.

Except in direct quotations, do not use the terms illegal alienan illegalillegals or undocumented.

Do not describe people as violating immigration laws without attribution.

Specify wherever possible how someone entered the country illegally and from where. Crossed the border? Overstayed a visa? What nationality?

People who were brought into the country as children should not be described as having immigrated illegally. For people granted a temporary right to remain in the U.S. under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, use temporary resident status, with details on the program lower in the story.

Previously: AP memo clarifies how to use the phrase ‘illegal immigrant’ | The New York Times explains why it still uses ‘illegal immigrant’ | Jose Antonio Vargas ‘disappointed’ NYT not budging on ‘illegal immigrant’

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