Reviewing the use of 'illegal immigrant'

Oct. 19, 2012
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UPDATED on April 2, 2013: The AP Stylebook today is making some changes in how we describe people living in a country illegally. Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll explains the thinking behind the decision.

In "Close to the News," a staff newsletter about the AP news report, worldwide and in all media, Deputy Managing Editor for Standards and Production Tom Kent reviews use of the term "illegal immigrant" and offers further guidance on writing about immigration issues.

In recent weeks, we’ve seen some requests for the AP and other news organizations to ban the term “illegal immigrant,” based on the contention that the term is inaccurate and dehumanizing. The issue has come up in the past, too, almost always in the U.S. context; we rarely see a complaint when the term is used to refer to people who illegally enter other countries.
The latest discussion has given AP an opportunity to clear up some misunderstandings about its policies -- particularly the incorrect assertion that we insist on the use of “illegal immigrant.”
The discussion has also reinforced for us the importance of reporting clearly and precisely about this sensitive subject, where there is a distinct danger of broad-brushing people and making incorrect assumptions.
Let’s talk about why we sometimes use “illegal immigrant.” Then we’ll look at some best practices in covering this issue, in the United States or elsewhere.
The first thing to note is that “illegal immigrant” is not the only term we use. The Stylebook entry on this subject was modified a year ago to make clear that other wording is always acceptable, including “living in the country without legal permission.”
In fact, there are cases where “illegal immigrant” doesn’t work at all. For instance, if a young man was brought into the country by parents who entered illegally, he didn’t consciously commit any act of “immigration” himself. It’s best to describe such a person as living in the country without legal permission, and then explain his story.
There are also cases where a person’s right to be in the country is currently in legal dispute; in such a case, we can’t yet say the person is here illegally.
But what about the cases where we do write “illegal immigrants”? Why not say “undocumented immigrants” or “unauthorized immigrants,” as some advocates would have it?
To us, these terms obscure the essential fact that such people are here in violation of the law. It’s simply a legal reality.
Terms like “undocumented” and “unauthorized” can make a person’s illegal presence in the country appear to be a matter of minor paperwork. Many illegal immigrants aren’t “undocumented” at all; they may have a birth certificate and passport from their home country, plus a U.S. driver’s license, Social Security card or school ID. What they lack is the fundamental right to be in the United States.
Without that right, their presence is illegal. Some say the word is inaccurate, because depending on the situation, they may be violating only civil, not criminal law. But both are laws, and violating any law is an illegal act (we do not say “criminal immigrant”).
Finally, there’s the concern that “illegal immigrant” offends a person’s dignity by suggesting his very existence is illegal. We don’t read the term this way. We refer routinely to illegal loggers, illegal miners, illegal vendors and so forth. Our language simply means that a person is logging, mining, selling, etc., in violation of the law -- just as illegal immigrants have immigrated in violation of the law. (Precisely to respect the dignity of people in this situation, the Stylebook warns against such terms as “illegal alien,” “an illegal” or “illegals.”)
All that said, the discussion about “illegal immigrant” underlines the sensitivity of this topic, and reminds us that writing about immigration requires care and precision. Some best practices going forward:
  • As the Stylebook says, we should not speak of people violating immigration laws without “reliable information about a person’s true status” -- which most commonly means a legal charge against them or a court decision.
  • Be especially careful about raids in which police seize large numbers of alleged illegal immigrants. Ask how many have actually been charged, and with what: entering the country illegally, overstaying visas or with non-immigration-related offenses? Were any people found to be legitimately in the country and released? If such details are not available, make that clear in the story.
  • Don’t lump together in stories and scripts people who entered the country illegally as adults, and young people who were brought in as children and have spent most of their lives in the country. People have their own stories; respect that. Some people entered the country legally on a tourist or other visa but violated the law by overstaying it. When organizations and politicians talk about “illegal immigrants,” ask them specifically whom they mean.
  • Be specific about nationalities. Don’t let terms like “illegal immigrants” be used synonymously with one nationality or ethnic group.
  • Make sure you have a clear understanding of immigration-related legal issues in your area, including under what circumstances police have a right or obligation to inquire into a person’s immigration status.
Our goal is to report fully and carefully on immigration matters without obscuring the fundamental facts of the situation.
We’ve been asked for a concise way to refer to people illegally in the United States who win a temporary right to remain in the country under the Obama Administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
We recommend saying successful applicants have “temporary resident status,” with details on the program lower in the story. This term will be added to the online Stylebook.
Those granted temporary resident status must have proved they arrived in the U.S. before age 16, are 30 years old or younger, high school graduates or in school, or served in the U.S. military. They cannot have a serious criminal record or otherwise pose a threat to public safety or national security. They will be allowed to stay in the U.S. for up to two years and be given work permits. Applications can be renewed in two years.

Alejandro Mayorkas, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, says the program serves to delay possible deportation for successful applicants, without excusing "past unlawful presence." He says, “It does not provide a pathway to permanent residence or citizenship."

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