The Associated Press announced today that it is amending its style book to eliminate the phrase “illegal immigrant.” (Also “illegal alien,” “an illegal,” “illegals” or “undocumented.”) The AP’s explanation is a little hard to follow:
[W]e had in other areas been ridding the Stylebook of labels. The new section on mental health issues argues for using credibly sourced diagnoses instead of labels. Saying someone was “diagnosed with schizophrenia” instead of schizophrenic, for example.
And that discussion about labeling people, instead of behavior, led us back to “illegal immigrant” again.
We concluded that to be consistent, we needed to change our guidance.
So illegal immigrants are now to be treated by analogy to schizophrenics? I guess the AP views that as an upgrade.
The AP’s about-face is a bit odd, in that as recently as October 2012, it had reaffirmed use of the term “illegal immigrant” on what appear to be more solid grounds:
[W]hat about the cases where we do write “illegal immigrants”? Why not say “undocumented immigrants” or “unauthorized immigrants,” as some advocates would have it?
To us, these terms obscure the essential fact that such people are here in violation of the law. It’s simply a legal reality.
Terms like “undocumented” and “unauthorized” can make a person’s illegal presence in the country appear to be a matter of minor paperwork. Many illegal immigrants aren’t “undocumented” at all; they may have a birth certificate and passport from their home country, plus a U.S. driver’s license, Social Security card or school ID. What they lack is the fundamental right to be in the United States.
Without that right, their presence is illegal. Some say the word is inaccurate, because depending on the situation, they may be violating only civil, not criminal law. But both are laws, and violating any law is an illegal act (we do not say “criminal immigrant”).
So how will the AP now refer to illegal immigrants? Weirdly, it doesn’t say:
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.
Specify wherever possible how someone entered the country illegally and from where. Crossed the border? Overstayed a visa? What nationality?
So apparently we can expect a lot of references to “people who entered the country without legal permission” in news stories to come.
Or maybe the AP will emulate the Minneapolis Star Tribune and start referring to illegal aliens as “dreamers,” as in “Young undocumented dreamers find doors opening in Minnesota.” Then again, given recent developments in Washington, the whole problem of how to refer to illegal immigrants may soon become moot.
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