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Why The Associated Press is dropping 'illegal immigrant' from its lexicon
Critics say the phrase is demeaning to undocumented workers
Jose Antonio Vargas, an activist, had called on the Associated Press to stop using the term "illegal immigrant."
Jose Antonio Vargas, an activist, had called on the Associated Press to stop using the term "illegal immigrant." Getty Images/Allison Shelley
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he Associated Press announced Tuesday that it is dropping the term "illegal immigrant" from its influential AP Stylebook, saying that the term is inaccurate.

In a statement explaining the decision, Kathleen Carroll, AP's senior vice president and executive editor, said the news agency is trying to eradicate reductive labels and push its writers to use more specific, and therefore accurate, descriptors instead.

"[W]hile labels may be more facile, they are not accurate," she wrote.

She added that the news agency was taking similar action elsewhere in the stylebook. For example, the AP now recommends saying that someone was "diagnosed with schizophrenia," not that they are a schizophrenic, she said.

In an interview with media watchdog Poynter, Carroll elaborated on her written statement:

It's kind of a lazy device that those of us who type for a living can become overly reliant on as a shortcut. It ends up pigeonholing people or creating long descriptive titles where you use some main event in someone's life to become the modifier before their name. [Poynter]

The revision says that writers should not use the word "illegal" when describing a person. However, the word can still be used to describe actions, as in "illegal immigration."

The new entry reads, in part:

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. [AP]

It's a win for pro-immigration groups, who have pushed to soften the language used to describe undocumented workers as Congress and the White House pursue a broad immigration reform deal. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus lauded the decision on Twitter, calling it a "great move forward."

Jose Antonio Vargas, an immigration activist, had specifically called on the AP and The New York Times to drop their usage of the phrase, saying it was a dehumanizing description of undocumented workers.

In publicly making the change, the news agency, whose stylebook sets the basic guidelines for many major news organizations, could lead other news outlets to adopt a similar policy.

Here's the Huffington Post's Jack Mirkinson on that point:

The wire service's decision is bound to be influential; it has perhaps the most widely-used style guide in the country. The Huffington Post, for instance, uses a modified version of the AP guide. Editors and reporters carefully track the changes to the guide, so when the AP decides it is altering something, that decision filters out to publications across the U.S. [Huffington Post]

The New York Times, for one, has already been considering a similar change in style. In a blog post Tuesday evening, public editor Margaret Sullivan said the paper could announce new guidelines as early as this week, but that they'd "probably be more incremental" than the AP's major revision.

"It's good to see these moves taking place," she wrote. "Language evolves and it's time for these changes."

Jon Terbush is a staff writer for TheWeek.com covering politics, sports, and other things he finds interesting. He has previously written for Talking Points Memo, Raw Story, and Business Insider.

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