On Tuesday, the AP announced that it will no longer use the term “illegal immigrant.” In a blog post, Kathleen Carroll, the AP’s executive editor and senior vice president, wrote, “The Stylebook no longer sanctions the term “illegal immigrant” or the use of “illegal” to describe a person. Instead, it tells users that “illegal” should describe only an action.” Reflecting this idea that the term “illegal” should not refer to people, the AP has also changed the title of the Stylebook entry from “illegal immigrant” to “illegal immigration.”
The announcement was a victory for immigrants’ rights organizations like Define American and progressive news outlets like Colorlines. Much of the credit for pushing for the change goes to Jose Antonio Vargas, the founder of Define American and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and activist who came out as undocumented two years ago. Last September, Vargas publicly called on the AP and The New York Times to drop the term “illegal immigrant.”
“It was kind of inevitable. It was going to happen. It’s just a matter of when. I’m surprised it took this long,” Vargas said over the phone. But that inevitability doesn’t diminish its significance. “The Associated Press just humanized undocumented people in this country,” he said.
The AP is not entirely dropping the adjective “illegal”; it will still refer to “illegal immigration” and people entering the country “illegally.” Vargas is fine with those usages because, he said, “that’s accurately describing an action.” The AP will also continue to use “illegal immigrant” with attribution, i.e. when quoting people or documents. So the phrase will continue to be used in AP stories, but it will no longer be treated as the acceptable and mainstream way to refer to immigrants who reside in the country illegally. As Director of Media Relations Paul Colford put it, “‘Illegal immigrant’ as an acceptable phrase is no longer acceptable.”
It was only last October (shortly after Vargas began his campaign) that Tom Kent, the AP’s deputy managing editor for standards and production, wrote in a blog post that the AP would be sticking with “illegal immigrant.” The AP, he explained, found alternatives to “illegal immigrant”—particularly Vargas’s favored term, “undocumented immigrant”—to be inaccurate, because many immigrants who entered the country illegally do have documents of one kind or another. “What they lack is the fundamental right to be in the United States,” Kent wrote. He also rejected the idea that the AP’s use of “illegal immigrant” offended the dignity of those who were in the country illegally.
What changed in the last six months? According to Colford, it wasn’t Vargas’s pressure campaign. “We weren’t pressured into it,” he said, while acknowledging that “the conversation continued even after we had affirmed ‘illegal immigrant.’”
“We continued to hear from various groups and individuals who felt pretty passionately,” Colford said, “[and] the Stylebook editors also sounded out any number of colleagues in the AP newsroom.”
The AP believes the new style will result in more accurate and precise reporting.
“The hope is that the reporter will be more specific as to the circumstances of one’s immigration status,” explained Colford, by using phrases like, “people who entered the country illegally” or “someone living in the country on an expired visa” as opposed to relying on the easy label “illegal immigrant.”
Vargas hopes the switch will lead to better immigration coverage in the AP and other news organizations that follow the Stylebook. “What this is about is the beginning of a conversation in newsrooms all across the country,” Vargas said. It’s a conversation that starts with a change in terminology, but extends to a re-examination of how news organizations cover immigrants.
The AP’s style changes serve as a useful gauge of news trends, but as a case study, nothing tops editorial decisions made at the Times. In October (again, shortly after Vargas began his campaign), Public Editor Margaret Sullivan wrote a blog post defending the Times’s use of “illegal immigrant.” Like Kent, she found alternatives like “undocumented immigrant” to be unclear and inaccurate.
But that may be changing. Sullivan wrote a post on Tuesday explaining that the Times is reconsidering its use of the term, though she added that any changes will probably “not be nearly as sweeping as The A.P.’s.”
Vargas expressed excitement about the Times having that conversation.
“I sincerely look forward to when [the Times will] announce that they have made the change as well,” he said. He may not have to wait long.