On Tuesday, the Associated Press finally struck the dehumanizing and legally inaccurate term “illegal immigrant” from their stylebook. The updated guidelines explain that the term illegal can be used by journalists to describe an action, but no longer to describe a person. This shift is momentous, and congratulations are in order—but hardly to the AP, who dragged their feet for far too long. The real victors here are the immigrants and advocates who fought for this change for years, and the handful of media organizations that opted to make the shift well before the AP gave them their stylistic blessing.
On their blog, the AP describes the decision as one born of a larger project that seeks to rid the stylebook of labels, a choice that reflects their ongoing quest to build a resource that guides writers toward precision and accuracy. “We’re not responding to one political current or another,” AP standards editor Tom Kent told Time magazine. Rather, Kent suggests the AP is simply challenging journalists to strive for unambiguous language that reflects the truth.
But whether or not they like it, the AP styleguide’s editors have a politicized job, and choosing not to remove the term “illegal immigrant” from their vocabulary was a silent endorsement of its use. Pretending to be arbiters of objectivity when faced with the task of actively responding to our constantly evolving country, and the English language, denies the obvious. If the end goal was truly as benign and apolitical as Kent claims, then why did it take so long to set this standard? And why didn’t more media outlets join the “Drop the I-Word” campaign? For the AP and the organizations that heeded their styleguide, failing to bid farewell to “illegal immigrant” was the path of least resistance.
Writing or speaking accurately about immigrants and immigration in our country is a complicated undertaking. Hundreds of thousands of people in the United States cannot accurately be described as either “illegal” or as “citizens,” and splitting the immigrant universe between these two words creates a fictitious and needlessly antagonistic us-against-them dichotomy.
For instance, conservative think tanks like the Center for Immigration Studies routinely use the terms “illegal aliens” and “citizens” to encompass groups of people who may or may not have unlawful status, and others who may or may not be citizens. They do this because they know that these loaded terms instill fear in a public already caught up in the very heated immigration debate.
Unfortunately for journalists chasing a tight word count, the gray area in between these labels almost inevitably makes a precise description a cumbersome one. Many immigrants who are involved in complicated removal proceedings could more accurately be described as longtime lawful permanent residents who hold Green Cards, refugees, asylum seekers, or U Visa holders. Are you confused yet? So are many of the thousands of immigrants entangled in our court system without legal representation. It seems the least that those of us writing about immigration could do is take the time and care to accurately describe their situation.
As writers, we know that language is inherently powerful. That’s part of why we do what we do. A writer who expertly wields the correct combination of words has the ability to educate, to change minds, or to silence a room. This truth makes the responsibilities of the AP all the more significant. Journalists are often tasked with writing about marginalized populations, and part of that task entails selecting words that are not divisive and racially charged. As long as the AP has the ability to influence publications as widely read as the New York Times (who are merely “reconsidering” use of the word), they must learn to evolve at a faster pace.
Special thanks to Molly Lauterback of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project for her consultation.