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AP drops ‘illegal immigrant’ from Stylebook

The Associated Press has dropped the phrase "illegal immigrant" from its stylebook, a victory for immigrant advocates who argue that the term is biased against the people it describes.

Undocumented Mexican immigrants walk through the Sonoran Desert after illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. (John Moore/Getty Images)

"The Stylebook no longer sanctions the term 'illegal immigrant' or the use of 'illegal' to describe a person," a blog post from AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll explains. "Instead, it tells users that 'illegal' should describe only an action, such as living in or immigrating to a country illegally."

The move, Carroll writes, is part of a broader shift away from labeling people and towards labeling behavior -- for example, referring to people "diagnosed with schizophrenia" instead of "schizophrenics."

The AP has previously rejected the term "undocumented immigrants," favored by some pro-reform activists, as inaccurate. Many people in the country illegally have documents, just not the right ones.

The influential AP Stylebook is used by newspapers and schools around the country. The shift is a coup for immigration reform advocates who argue that the term is unfair.

The argument against the term "illegal immigrants" is that human beings are not themselves illegal, their actions are. Advocates say that to label a person as "illegal" for one crime stigmatizes those hoping to gain American citizenship, many of whom came to the country as children.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told reporters last week that she didn't "really get caught up in the vocabulary wars."

"They are immigrants who are here illegally, that's an illegal immigrant," she said.

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus, a group of 27 House Democrats, touted the AP's decision as a "great move forward."

Journalist-turned-activist Jose Antonio Vargas is among those who have pressured media organizations to drop the term "illegal immigrant." President Obama and immigration reform advocates in the Senate have preferred the term "undocumented," while opponents of reform often emphasize the term "illegal."

“The Associated Press got this right, no human being is illegal," Vargas said Tuesday. "Now it’s time for other news outlets to follow the AP’s lead and end it for good.”

So if they're not illegal or undocumented, how should one refer to the 11 million people in the country illegally? The AP calls for detail: "Specify wherever possible how someone entered the country illegally and from where. Crossed the border? Overstayed a visa? What nationality?" Jonathan Rosa, a linguistic anthropologist at the University of Massachusetts, told NPR recently that he opts for the more concise "unauthorized migrant."

Rachel Weiner covers local politics for The Washington Post.



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