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“Illegal Immigrants” No More:
The Associated Press Ends the Slur

| April 11, 2013

Human beings first and last. (SpaceShoe)

Human beings first and last. (SpaceShoe)

By Raul A. Reyes

The Associated Press recently announced a major change in the way it describes people with an unlawful presence in the United States. The AP Stylebook, which spells out the standards most media outlets use, no longer sanctions the terms “illegal” and “illegal immigrant” to refer to undocumented people.

Latino and immigrant advocacy groups applauded this move, which they had promoted for years. Many conservatives accused the organization of bowing to political correctness.

But this isn’t a question of mere political correctness. It’s about accuracy, fairness, and respect. The “I-word” offends immigrants and American values. “Illegal” is a loaded term that has polluted the immigration debate for too long.

The AP made the right decision because calling a person “illegal” disregards one of the cornerstones of our justice system, the presumption of innocence. Consider that when journalists report on a child molester or a serial killer, they are always careful to include the word “alleged” or “suspected.”

That’s the correct thing to do by law. And the undocumented are entitled to the same protection. Only a judge can determine whether a person is lawfully in the country — not a journalist, or even a Department of Homeland Security official.

Bob Dane of the Federation for American Immigration Reform criticized the AP’s new position. “What they’re really doing is interjecting a form of bias in their reporting,” he told Fox News Latino. Yet by dropping “illegal,” the AP encourages better reporting.

other-wordsOne big problem with the term “illegal immigrant” is that the vast majority of the undocumented are civil — not criminal — offenders, as being in the country unlawfully is a misdemeanor.

Homeland Security officials told The New York Times that 40 percent of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States didn’t enter the country illegally. They entered legally and then overstayed their visas. “Undocumented” and “unauthorized” are more precise terms for these immigrants than “illegal.”

Although the majority of the undocumented came to this country in search of better opportunities, their ranks also include asylum seekers, refugees, and victims of traffickers. It’s needlessly hurtful and punitive to tag them all with a negative label like “illegal” simply because they lack papers.


Still, conservative pundit Michelle Malkin lashed out at the AP, accusing the news organization of being an “activist, progressive organ.” She’s missing the bigger picture.

The AP is wisely evolving along with society. When’s the last time you heard someone refer to a person as “Negro” or “colored”? Do you know what someone means when they use the expression “Ms.” instead of “Miss” or “Mrs.”?

And isn’t it becoming rare for members of the LGBT community to be referred to as “homosexuals” in the media or political debate?

Dropping the “I-word” simply reflects the AP’s increased sensitivity to Latinos, the largest U.S. minority.

True, it can be easier for journalists to use the shorthand of “illegal” rather than the more cumbersome alternatives. But journalism shouldn’t be about the easy route. Besides, the “I-word” is often selectively applied. Celebrities from Eminem to Martha Stewart to Keifer Sutherland have criminal records, yet the media rarely refers to them as “illegals.”

Why should the most vulnerable and marginalized among us be singled out as criminals? As the AP explained in a statement, “illegal” should refer to an activity, not a person.

The AP’s move is especially commendable in light of today’s immigration debate. By dropping simplistic and denigrating terms, we can move toward a deeper, more informed dialogue. And it may save lives, for dehumanizing language can lead to violence. For example, Ecuadorian immigrant Marcelo Lucero was assaulted and killed in Patchogue, New York. During the course of this 2008 hate crime, his attacker called him an “illegal.”

The AP is sending a powerful and positive message by ditching the “I-word.” No human being is illegal. It’s time we all drop this harmful, inappropriate term.

Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and columnist in New York City. Distributed via OtherWords.

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31 Responses for ““Illegal Immigrants” No More:
The Associated Press Ends the Slur”

  1. Maryjoe says:

    “They entered legally and then overstayed their visas.” Which means they are here illegally. They over-stayed their visa. That is illegal. Get a grip. Enough of this politically correct nonsense. Let’s call a spade a spade.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Slur OK sure one comes here illegally you then say that and its a slur?? What total BS PC at work

  3. Gia says:

    Pack them in school bus & send them back across the border. That’s nothing wrong Eisenhower did it & he was right

  4. Dlf says:

    Here we go again, some liberal press is telling me what I can say and what I cannot say What about my freedom of speech,I may not choose to use the word but don’t tell me I cannot. If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck it is a duck ,not a swan or a goose, but a duck .

    • FlaglerLive says:

      Dlf, no one is telling you how to refer to undocumented immigrants. This is about how the Associated Press chooses to exercise its own judgment (and freedom of speech) in its own dispatches–a belated decision you’ve been familiar with on FlaglerLive for as long as you’ve been reading it, since we’ve never used the words “illegal immigrant” except when quoting those who still prefer to use it.

      • Robert says:

        That has a lot to do with your extremely liberal views.

        They sneak in to U.S., or over stay their allowed time. That makes them illegals.

        I think we should refer to them as really lost.

      • Dlf says:

        Flagler Live: point well taken, they are using there freedom of speech,political correct is going to make it difficult to talk to anyone without stepping on someone’s toes.

      • Dlf says:

        After reading the article again the AP is telling me to drop this “harmful inappropriate term”. Last sentence of the article. I agree they have the right to drop the use of this term,they do not have the right to tell me to drop the use,sorry we still live in the USA.

  5. Bunnell Resident says:

    Try sneeking into Mexico and getting caught. You will go to a Mexican jail and it won’t be pretty. Sneek into the United States and you get a host of government welfare services, free education for your children, free medical care, in state tuition for your college education and sometimes even grant money, and now we can’t even call you what you are… Illegal. We are such suckers. Legal Immigration is a good thing and we should make the process simpler and faster. It is hard to imagine the first act someone takes is to break the law and then expect them to respect all other laws afterwards. AP is doing this at the behest of the Obama Adiministration. Next time an unlicensed driver kills someone in an accident they should just call them an undocumented driver. We can call drug dealers “unlicensed pharmacists” and we can quit calling newspaper reporters “jouranlists” and instead call them what they are… “Undocumented agents of the far left.” let’s not forget that many of our “undocumented immigrants” violate a host of other laws in the process of trying to remain in the shadows. How about incone tax laws, filing false documents such as form W9, using false social security numbers, false identities, credit fraud using false identities, opening bank accounts under false names, the list goes on and on. Drop any of those documents in the mail and you can add mail fraud to the list of felonies these so called “civil offenders” have commited. If I were an undocumented immigrant and opened up four credit cards with the intent of paying aspromised, it would still be credit fraud. Add to that once I got in debt up to my neck, the easy solution would just be to stop paying assume another false identity, and repeat.

  6. NON-PC Gator says:

    If you have migrated to this country unlawfully then you are breaking the law and there for it is illegal. If someone squats in my home they are not an undocumented family member they are trespassing.

  7. Magnolia says:

    They are now to be known as undocumented Democrats.

    • Anonymous says:

      Magnolia,

      You beat me to it. By using this logic, a drug dealer is now an undocumented pharmacist. I agree with others. If you are in this country illegally, you ARE an illegal immigrant. Before folks begin to decry my opinion, my ancestors are Native Americans.

    • Robert says:

      You must be corrected…they are now voting democrats

  8. Cindy says:

    Wow!!! people let not forget that all of our ancestors have immigrated some how. Unless you are an american indian we are all immigrants. Don’t you all forget that. We are so fast to say” illegal immigrants” should be put on buses and sent back but reality has it that if it wasn’t for these illegals as you all want to refer to them and a bitching because we are changing the way we are labled that no one would do all the dirty little jobs that your Lazy ass Kids that are born in America don’t want to do. I was born and raised here but i can’t forget that my parents came in and over stayed their visa because it takes years to become legal. They worked very hard to have what they have and give all of their kids a good life. Funny how i look around me and the only people i see complaing is the Lazy welfare Born in this County fools that cant prosper because of their lazyness and ignorance. Watch them little Mexicans work those crops you might learn to survive in your county.

    • Robert says:

      My family was documented, like most european immigrants.

      Prior to that, there were no immigration laws.

      There are a lot of good, even great people that illegally enter, or over stay in the U.S.. Doesn’t make them terrible people…just illegal.

    • The Conservative says:

      Well Cindy my Family came through Ellis Island the Legal way as did many Legal Immergrants.
      For those that crawled across the border and many with drugs to sell or those that over stayed
      their Visas they are Criminals or Illegal Immergrants.

  9. Outsider says:

    What a bunch of bunk. By the author’s rationale, the police can no longer accuse people of making an illegal U-Turn, because it’s not a criminal offense. The mainstream press diminishes it’s credibility more and more every day.

  10. Ogreagain says:

    You guys are wild. I hear Alaska Rep. Don Young would like you move and vote for him. he supports that very same thing. also cited a reason to live there. super relaxed gun laws, very very limited about of african-americans, and a chance not to be hot durning the summer and complain about how much tax is on engery.

  11. Magnolia says:

    http://radio.woai.com/articles/woai-local-news-119078/obama-will-let-me-out-11180453/

    Illegals caught by border patrol on Texas ranch mock with, ‘Obama’s going to let me go.’

  12. johnny taxpayer says:

    The author suggests “illegal immigrant” is inapplicable in part because many “illegal” aliens simply overstay their visa and therefore are only guilty of a civil offense of being in the country illegally rather than the criminal offense of entering the country illegally. This is not completely accurate because the majority of aliens that come into the country “legally” with a visa, do so without any intention to leave. That’s called Visa Fraud, knowingly obtaining a visa under false pretenses, and it is a criminal offense, punishable up to 5 years in prison.
    So how about a compromise with “alleged illegal immigrant”?

    And by the way, to those posting thinking the solution is just to round up 12-14 mil “alleged” illegals and deport them, please share whatever alleged illegal substance you’re smoking with the rest of us, as that is not going to happen.

  13. Fred says:

    Maybe we can use the term ” WetBeaners”. Now isn’t that more political correct ?

  14. Liana G says:

    I applaud the AP for doing this! My kids were called “illegal immigrants” and told to “go back to Mexico” in addition to having stuff thrown at them on the school bus – all because of their tan skin and brown hair! Of course, all such hateful behaviors are taught. I guess tan is only attractive if it’s aided by sun tan oils, tanning salons, air brushed, or in the case of John Boehner, a skin coloring concoction that leaves the skin orange.

    I don’t understand why it is disrespectful in America to call blacks “Negro”, which is derived from the word Negroid. In other countries, including my home country, to address a black person as “Negro” is a sign of respect. I don’t understand the term “African American” either, since the word “African” represents a nationality and not a race. I know there are Caucasians and Asians born in Africa living in America – I’ve met some. Do we address these folks as “African Americans” too?

    Egypt is in Africa and Russia is in Asia, yet we refer to Egyptians as Asians and Russians as Europeans. Should we instead call Egyptians / Africans, and Russians / Asians?

    (The social racial identification for Asians is Mongoloids but this was changed when the word “mongol” became associated with mental retardation/Down syndrome. Thus Asian as a race was introduced to identify all peoples from a continent and eliminating the identification of features that determine categorization of race. This makes no sense as Russians should be included as Asian and Egyptians excluded. But I suspect in the rush to deliberately remove a certain group of peoples from their Aryan heritage, a lot of clumsy errors were made by prejudice people). I wonder if the AP and academe will correct these errors.

    • Mongo says:

      Actually, the word “Mongol” comes from the country of Mongolia ! Their people where known as “Mongols”.

    • Robert says:

      Your first paragraph makes little to no sense. If they’re not illegals then there not illegal. Sounds more like mean kids that needed their butts beat by their parents.

  15. blondee says:

    So now we have the I-word, the N-word, the F-word, and the R-word (yesterday’s topic). Can’t we find some other terms to use up the remaining 22 letters?

  16. notasenior says:

    This is less about political correctness and more about accuracy. By definition a person can not be illegal. an act can be illegal. An inanimate object object can be illegal. But a person can’t! Also for the person who’s ancestors allegedly came here legally from Eurpope – under today’s laws they would be arriving illegally. Immigrants from Europe up until the 1950’s came here without papers (thus the slur WOP).

  17. markingthedays says:

    APA Style is not defined by the Associated Press. “The rules of APA Style, detailed in the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, offer sound guidance for writing with simplicity, power, and concision.” This is not a “liberal media” attack.

    The APA style is, simply stated, a guide for writing papers, especially research papers in medicine and science. MLA style, conversely, is generally used for writings on language and literature.

  18. Stevie says:

    This whole issue about cheating. The people that come here illegally cheat. The people that hire them cheat and the people that are supposed to enforce the law cheat because they let law breakers stay put and rob jobs from law abiding Americans because the cheaters drop the wages down to slave levels for the cheaters.

    Cheating and deception have become the new norm for America standards. How about that?

  19. we the people says:

    I find it funny with all the Mexican comments, yes there is abundant central american immigrants but their is no mention of Anglos from Europe, Scotland, china Asia, Africa, Canada, and so on. The world is bigger then just our boarders. My ancestors came through Ellis island and I believe living in the US is a privilege not a right, and EVERYONE should do what the can to be here legally. Saying that its Mexicans with drugs on their backs that are the only “ILLEGALS” just shows how much of a racist bigot you are. You think every illegal immigrant that is here is because of drugs? You live in a small world their friend….

  20. Dolly says:

    How about using “unlawfully present” in place of “illegal” in our terminology?

    For both those migrants with papers and those without, the real issue is this: some people care about violations (of laws or other government rules) that enabled the migrants we’re talking about to reside in the country. And those people often don’t care whether the migrant is blameless because someone else (human traffickers, parents of DREAMers, etc) caused the violations.

    Some people claim that the term “illegal” is demeaning or pejorative. Even if that could be proven, we could ask: why do those migrants deserve to be spared from that kind of term, given those violations I just mentioned? The migrants usually are willing beneficiaries of those violations, and often will commit more violations in order to stay in the USA.

    Activists are demanding that people stop referring to the migrants as “illegal”. Then they should suggest something much more accurate, something that captures the fact that those violations occurred (because the violations are what people care about and are the defining characteristic of the migrants we are talking about). Why should people settle for a misleading term like “undocumented” just to avoid the alleged possibility of stigmatization?

    We could say “unauthorized” instead of “illegal”. But then people could just say, “No human being is unauthorized.” So I guess that would solve nothing.

    A specific individual should not be described as “illegal” while his/her immigration status is unproven. But the term is often used to refer to a group of people known to exist in the USA (or whichever destination country is being discussed), and the appropriateness of the label for them is debatable.

    Saying “no human being is illegal” is a misleading slogan. I believe that few or no participants in the recent immigration debate ever seriously believed that people can be inherently illegal. I doubt that adults considering immigration issues believe the term “illegal immigrant” means that. The term is understood to have a different meaning.

    Instead, some people claim that a person’s presence in a particular place, or crossing a particular boundary, at a particular time can be the result of some kind of violation. Other people believe that such a presence is itself some kind of violation. I believe these are the two widely intended meanings of “illegal immigrant”. Unfortunately, it’s not always clear which of those two is meant, but both involve illegality so maybe that doesn’t matter.

    It’s true that we don’t describe people in other kinds of situations as illegal. For example, we don’t use “illegal drivers” to refer to those who get speeding tickets, or “illegal employers” to refer to those who knowingly hire employees who lack a legal right to work. But why are these migrants entitled to equality of terminology? The English language has other quirky terminology that we don’t worry about, because we know the intended meaning. We know the approximate intended meaning of this term “illegal”. Must this term have a legalistic degree of precision? Do we really need to get rid of it?

    It’s true that “illegal immigrant” is not thoroughly accurate terminology. But why is “undocumented” any better? For some of the migrants we are talking about, there do exist various documents related to their citizenship or residency.

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