AP Bans ‘Illegal Immigrant’: The Tricky Language of Immigration Reform

New Associated Press Stylebook guidance marks the latest chapter in a long battle over the "I-word."

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A t-shirt worn at a demonstration by immigrant students for an end to deportations and for relief for those in deportation proceedings, June 15, 2012, in Los Angeles, Calif.

There’s a snappy saying used to promote cultural sensitivity toward Asian-Americans and their heritage: rugs are Oriental, people are Asian. The corollary in today’s national conversation about immigration reform might go something like this: “Actions are illegal, people are undocumented.” That is, unless you’re a reporter for the Associated Press, for whom the terms illegal immigrant and undocumented immigrant are now both verboten.

(COVER STORY: Not Legal, and Not Leaving)

On Tuesday, when the news service announced that its thousands of reporters would no longer be using those terms, it was a victory for activists who have argued that no person should be described as “illegal.” But the lack of suggested alternatives highlights a potential headache for journalists, politicians and others who regularly talk and write about people who are in the United States without proper documentation: which words do they use now?

The Associated Press says their update is more about avoiding labels as a general practice than showing sensitivity to the immigrant community (though the editors did have meetings with such advocates in recent months). “We try to be fair to people’s feelings,” standards editor Tom Kent tells TIME, “but we’re not responding to one political current or another.” He says the change to the AP Stylebook, an established guide to proper usage and grammar, is no different than changes that have nixed other reductive terms, like wheelchair-bound or schizophrenic. “We’re trying to put the emphasis not on describing people but on describing actions or situations that they are in,” Kent says. (TIME discourages the use of the term “illegal immigrant” by our writers.)

(PHOTOS: America’s Undocumented Immigrants)

The easy fix, one pushed by many immigration reform activists, is to use “undocumented immigrants.” But AP Stylebook editors, being highly concerned about the precision and accuracy of their language, rejected that adjective too. That term — the one preferred by anti-I-word campaigners like Jose Antonio Vargas, who wrote TIME’s June 2012 cover story on immigration reform — is still too imprecise, Kent says: after all, an “undocumented” immigrant could have all sorts of documents, like a driver’s license or a birth certificate from their home country.

In a recent hearing about immigration on Capitol Hill, Democratic Rep. John Conyers expressed the preference that no one present use the term “illegal immigrants” and instead called such people “out of status.” Yet Kent finds that phrasing even less clear. “Everybody has some status,” he says. “I mean, I’m seated at the moment. I don’t think most readers would grasp what we meant by that.”

(VIEWPOINT: The Problem with the Word ‘Illegal’) 

When telling individual stories, writers and politicians can get more specific about the immigrant in question, eschewing the word illegal by explaining more precisely what the subject’s circumstances are. When referring to a broader group, the language gets more cumbersome. Kent’s most elaborate suggestion was “foreigners in the United States in violation of the law.” And tortured language will only fan the flames of critics who view such avoidances as liberal hand-wringing. “They’re illegals. They’re illegals. They’re illegals. They’re illegals. They’re here illegally,” Glenn Beck said on his radio show in response to Conyers’ “out of status” remarks.

For its part, the AP Stylebook has for years required reporters to avoid the terms “illegals” or “aliens” because those words are viewed as derogatory. And there are certain words that have cropped up in recent political discussions that pretty much everyone can agree not to use — just ask Alaska Rep. Don Young. Even with the AP changing its ways, and more news organizations considering similar reforms, ridding society at large of a convenient shorthand is not going to be easy. But Kent says ease is not the driving factor when it comes to the AP Stylebook. The new ban “fits in with our own ethic on labeling,” he says. “We want to some degree reflect the evolution of society.”

Wednesday Words is a weekly column that delves into the way we wag our tongues and wield our pens.

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