Sojourners, Pastor Jim Wallis’ progressive organization and media outlet, is circulating a petition to encourage supporters to convince The Associated Press, a news-wire service, to stop using the supposedly-dehumanizing term “illegal.”
This morning, an e-mail was distributed to supporters, blaming the media, in part, for the nation’s failure to “change the national debate on immigration.” At the center of Sojourners’ claims is that the media unfairly label undocumented immigrants as “illegal.”
From a denotative standpoint, though, this is the legal term for individuals who are not natural-born citizens and who have failed to go through the proper channels to enter and remain in the U.S. legally. Even Dictionary.com defines “illegal alien” as “a foreigner who has entered or resides in a country unlawfully or without the country’s authorization.”
But Sojourners maintains that the word “illegal” is a “dehumanizing term” that “robs people of their dignity.”
In an e-mail to supporters, Wallis’ group also maintains that when outlets like the AP use the term, it “prejudices readers against the needs and concerns of our immigrant brothers and sisters.” Because reporters and journalists generally rely upon the “Associated Press Stylebook” to guide them when it comes to crafting stories, Sojourners is particularly frustrated with the fact that the book tells reporters “illegal immigrant” is still acceptable.
On a web page setup to allow supporters to e-mail David Minthorn, the AP’s deputy standards editor and co-editor of the stylebook, with their concerns, the outlet presents the following letter for supporters to sign:
Dear Mr. Minthorn,
As people of faith we believe that each person is created in God’s image, and the dignity of all people must be protected. Language is a powerful tool that is never neutral. Descriptions shape perceptions. Words are used to persuade.
The use of the term “illegal immigrant” to describe immigrants living in the U.S. without documentation is degrading and inappropriate. The label assigns a status to the whole individual, rather than speaking to a particular aspect of their situation.
Given the authority and influence of the AP Stylebook in setting standards for media outlets across the country and around the world, I am writing to urge the AP to stop using the term “illegal immigrant” to describe undocumented immigrants and revise the guidance offered by the AP Stylebook when it comes to this term.
[City, State ZIP]
In making its appeal to encourage a softer tone when it comes to undocumented individuals, Sojourners invoked scripture in its letter urging people to participate in the the e-mail blitz. The outlet highlighted Proverbs 15:1, which reads, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”
The e-mail concludes by calling for the “controversial” word to be removed from the AP’s media manifesto so that “a more compassionate and accurate conversation about immigration” can take form. In September, journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, himself an illegal immigrant, delivered a similar challenge to the AP.