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AP Stylebook will no longer sanction use of 'illegal immigrant', says ''Illegal' should describe only an action'

The Associated Press will no longer sanction the term
The Associated Press will no longer sanction the term "illegal immigrant" in its stylebook, but it's not condoning use of "undocumented" - as seen on this student activist's t-shirt - either.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

And just like that, the Associated Press is announcing that it's no longer going to sanction the term "illegal immigrant" in its stylebook.

In a blog entry Tuesday in the AP's the Definitive Source blog, media relations director Paul Colford announced the change as explained by senior vice president and executive editor Kathleen Carroll:

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.

Not that it happened just like that. The change comes after a years-long debate in newsrooms, and more recently on the Web as immigrant advocates have fought for alternative terms like "undocumented" or "unauthorized." In recent years, professional journalist organizations such as the Society of Professional Journalists and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists have come out against "illegal immigrant" as well, saying it is too politically loaded of a term, instead embracing the use of "undocumented."

Meanwhile, different newsrooms have opted for different terms, with some continuing to follow Associated Press style. While the AP had clarified its position in recent years (for example, stating that "illegal" as a noun was inappropriate), it had stuck with "illegal immigrant."

This will now change. The blog post goes on to describe what happens next: The style change is being made immediately to the AP Stylebook Online in English and Spanish versions, and it will appear in the print and mobile editions due out later in the spring.

It notes the stylebook entry, which in spite of the change does not sanction the use of "undocumented," considered by some critics to be a euphemism:

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.

AP Stylebook users will also be advised to do what good reporters should be doing anyway, which is being specific and asking questions:

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

Interestingly, the entry also advises that a distinction should be made regarding those who came to the U.S. as children:

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 AP change comes as comprehensive immigration reform bills are being awaited from the Senate and House, meaning news organizations will be digesting it in just as immigration news coverage kicks into higher gear than it's already in. Perhaps as a nod, the AP blog post notes:

Will the new guidance make it harder for writers? Perhaps just a bit at first. But while labels may be more facile, they are not accurate.

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