Those of you in journalism are quite familiar with The Associated Press Stylebook–it’s literally our bible for correct form and usage. But it’s definitely a “living bible,” not some petrified, unchanging dictum. And today it announced a big correction: It suggests that publications no longer use the expression “illegal immigrant.”
In updated “AP Style, “illegal” should refer only to an action (such as illegal immigration) not a person. So instead of talking about an illegal immigrant, journalists should refer to people living in or entering a country illegally. And forget about substituting illegal immigrant with such terms as illegal alien, an illegal, illegals or undocumented. These are people, people!
The change, according to a blog by AP’s director of media relations, Paul Colford, is of a piece with other efforts to rid the Stylebook of labels for people. He points out that a new section on mental health issues, for example, argues that journalists say or write that someone was “diagnosed with schizophrenia” instead of calling her “schizophrenic.”
According to The New York Times‘ public editor, Margaret Sullivan, that newspaper—which follows its own style rules—is also reconsidering the term “illegal immigrant” and may drop it, although, Sullivan writes, “From what I can gather, The Times’s changes will not be nearly as sweeping as the AP’s.”
The expression “illegal immigrant” has been controversial for years, seen to dehumanize those it describes—let alone being inaccurate (how can a person be illegal?). Indeed, ColorLines launched a campaign three years ago to “Drop the I-Word” (illegal), calling it “hate speech.”
According to ABC News/Univision, most of the top college newspapers and major TV networks in the U.S. have already vowed to stop using the term. Add to that the 1,400 newspapers in the Associate Press Cooperative, most of whom will likely follow the new AP style, and you have a sea change in human respect.