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Protesters ask New York Times to stop using 'illegal immigrant'

A student protester's t-shirt in Los Angeles, June 15, 2012. The Associated Press recently announced it would no longer approve the term
A student protester's t-shirt in Los Angeles, June 15, 2012. The Associated Press recently announced it would no longer approve the term "illegal immigrant" in its stylebook, but it hasn't sanctioned "undocumented" as an alternative, either.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

It's perhaps a first in the history of newsspeak: A protest at a newspaper office to convince editors to stop using "illegal" as a way to describe immigrants. 

This is what activists did Tuesday at The New York Times, standing outside the building and delivering a petition they said contained 70,000 signaturesIt was an in-person approach to a protest that's been building online for the past few years. Activists have launched digital campaigns to persuade news organizations to drop "illegal immigrant," which some consider too politicized, for alternatives like "undocumented" or "unauthorized."

Earlier this month, after years of defending its use, The Associated Press announced it would no longer sanction "illegal immigrant" as a term in its AP Stylebook.

The Times uses several terms, but it has continued to use "illegal immigrant" in some stories as the immigration reform debate has unfolded in Washington. So have some other mainstream news organizations, as seen in headlines this week from the Denver Post and the Arizona Daily Star (the latter appearing on an AP story that didn't use it in the text). 

At the same time, the AP's guidance didn't come with easy alternative labels. "Undocumented," which is often used, wasn't approved either. From the stylebook update:

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.

After the AP made its announcement in early April, New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan wrote that the newspaper had also been considering changes to its style.

This afternoon, the Times announced that it would be tweaking its style to give reporters and editors other options and encourage them to be more specific. But the newspaper isn't banning use of "illegal immigrant" outright. From the Times' story on the changes:

The newspaper did not go as far as The Associated Press, and it will continue to allow the phrase to be used for "someone who enters, lives or works in the United States without proper legal authorization."

This story has been updated.