Associated Press Stylebook Drops Illegal Immigrant to Describe People

Image source: Flickr user jrossol

The Associated Press Stylebook has done away with the term “illegal immigrant” or “illegal” to describe people.

It’s a significant move from the largest news-gathering outlet in the world and its influential stylebook, which is followed by newsrooms around the globe. It comes after a campaign by former Washington Post journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, who outed himself as illegal in 2011, to get media organizations to drop the term.

“The Stylebook no longer sanctions the term “illegal immigrant” or the use of “illegal” to describe a person. Instead, it tells users that “illegal” should describe only an action, such as living in or immigrating to a country illegally,” Kathleen Carroll, AP senior vice president and executive editor, said in a statement Tuesday.

“The discussions on this topic have been wide-ranging and include many people from many walks of life. (Earlier, they led us to reject descriptions such as “undocumented,” despite ardent support from some quarters, because it is not precise. A person may have plenty of documents, just not the ones required for legal residence.),” she said.

It’s a reversal for the AP, which reaffirmed “illegal immigrant” after Vargas began his push in September, saying the term reflected a “legal reality.”

“A number of people felt that ‘illegal immigrant’ was the best choice at the time. They also believed the always-evolving English language might soon yield a different choice and we should stay in the conversation,” Carroll said.

But the AP has been “ridding the stylebook of labels” in other areas — for example, saying someone was “diagnosed with schizophrenia” instead of “schizophrenic,” she said.

“[T]hat discussion about labeling people, instead of behavior, led us back to ‘illegal immigrant’ again,” Carroll said. “We concluded that to be consistent, we needed to change our guidance.”

The AP’s revised stylebook entry in full:

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 alien, an illegal, illegals 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.

The change also comes amid continuing talks of a major immigration deal being worked out in Washington.

​Related:

Other Must-Read Stories