How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Highlights from today's AirTalk: Illegal, undocumented, or unauthorized?

Photo by Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

A student activist's t-shirt, December 2010

Today's AirTalk with Larry Mantle on KPCC took on the debate (here's the audio) over what to call immigrants who live and work in the United States without permission. I provided some background while Larry fielded calls from listeners with their take on whether the correct term should be "illegal," "undocumented," or "unauthorized."

It's a debate that has existed in newsrooms for years, but has heated up recently. The Associated Press continues to use "illegal immigrant," clarifying earlier this month in its updated stylebook that while the AP doesn't condone the use of “illegal aliens,” “illegals” or “an illegal,” neither does it sanction the use of ”undocumented.”

The AP Stylebook is used as a guide by most mainstream media. But professional organizations like the Society of Professional Journalists and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists have taken a position on the terms, eschewing "illegal" in favor of "undocumented." And the social-justice advocacy magazine ColorLines, which last year launched a "Drop the I-Word" campaign aimed at media, recently urged readers to contact the AP and suggest that "illegal immigrant" be dropped for the 2012 edition of the stylebook.

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Illegal, undocumented, unauthorized? More debate over immigrants and AP style

Photo by stay sick/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Graffiti in Munich, Germany, Feb. 2008

Last month I wrote about the discussion provoked by a campaign organized by ColorLines, an online magazine covering issues related to racial justice, to discourage media use of "illegals" in reference to immigrants who arrived in this country illegally or overstayed visas.

Most mainstream media outlets follow Associated Press style, I pointed out then. And while "illegals" isn't deemed appropriate in the AP Stylebook, "illegal immigrant" is.

Last week, Marisa Treviño of Latina Lista took the next step: questioning the AP's judgment on its style, and that of outlets that go along with it. After being offended by the use of "illegal immigrant" used to describe CSU Fresno's accomplished student body president in a headline when his status was disclosed recently, she posted last Thursday:

...the AP, always looked upon as the guardian and ultimate authority on newspaper writing style, refuses to acknowledge that maybe a group other than itself can deem a particular term inappropriate for news usage -- especially a group that is offended by that term.

It wouldn't be so bad if only the AP used the term but because many in the industry follow its lead like sheep in a pack, they also use the term when referring to undocumented immigrants. In speaking with a few editors at different newspapers about their usage of the term, they have replied that they use it because it is "sanctioned" by the AP.

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