Last Friday, the Associated Press’ Deputy Managing Editor for Standards and Production released an updated guide for how to cover immigration titled “Reviewing the use of ‘illegal immigrant.’”
Tom Kent, the AP’s Deputy Managing Editor for Standards and Production, wrote that recent discussions about the i-word have given the AP an opportunity to clear up some misunderstandings about its policies and reinforced “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.”
The guide is a mixed bag. On one hand, this is the AP’s most nuanced guide on the topic, which includes excellent best practice recommendations for journalists that do not include the term “illegal immigrant” in most instances. That fact makes the AP’s choice to keep using “illegal immigrant” all the more contradictory. The guide also includes some missteps along the way to that conclusion. Kent offers incorrect statements about immigration law and the reasons he gives for journalists to steer away from “undocumented” and “unauthorized” are unfounded. Most glaringly, the guide brushes aside of the dehumanizing aspect of the i-word.
Leading journalists, linguists and attorneys have rejected the i-word, based on their fields of expertise. Efforts to drop the i-word are backed by UNITY, the largest organization bringing together journalist of color, and by one of the most esteemed Spanish language journalists in the country Univision’s Jorge Ramos. A call to stop using the term has been issued to the AP by Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. There have been significant takedowns of the i-word by the country’s leading linguists, by the National Immigration Law Center and by many others in the legal community, including this awesome legal primer on the i-word by immigration attorney David Bennion.
In AP’s guide, Kent states that “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’).” Actually, describing people as “illegal” does taint people with criminality, which is why attorneys don’t use it, and a growing number of journalists don’t either. Further, as Bennion points out: “First, the terms ‘illegal immigrant’ and ‘illegal alien’ are not defined in the Immigration and Nationality Act and are generally disfavored by immigration judges and the members of the Board of Immigration Appeals, who make decisions about whether someone is to be removed from the U.S. or not…. Second, the term illegal immigrant is not accurate because it usually assumes a person’s immigration status when that status has not yet been determined by a court of law.”
As Kent himself points out, sometimes people have a migratory status that is in limbo, or in “legal dispute.” And even once a court makes a determination about whether to deport someone, there has never been a ruling that finds a person to be “illegal.” If the legal community is not designating people as “illegal,” it does not make sense for the AP to cling to the language, especially now that the organization is acknowledging the issue requires a nuanced approach.
At the Drop the I-Word campaign, while we recognize the need to find replacement language, our primary concern has been dropping terms that describe people as “illegal.” We advocate for a wide use of terms because we understand, as the AP does, that no one or two terms will cover every situation. The important thing is that we use descriptions that are accurate, as precise as possible and in no way harmful.
Two of the many terms we use are ones that Kent rejects. “Undocumented immigrant” and “unauthorized immigrant” signal that proper migratory documentation and authorization are possible for people, which in many cases, they are. The term “undocumented immigrant” is one of many terms that people use to identify themselves, and this is precisely why it has been picked up by journalists and advocates, out of respect and because the term works. The term “unauthorized” is used by linguists, the legal community and journalists internationally and is one of the terms used by the United Nationʼs Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD).
As Kent points out in the AP’s best practices section of the memo, there are many other descriptions based on a person’s status, and understanding specific experiences is the best place to start. “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.” There does not seem to be a single instance in which a journalist’s only option is to tag someone as an “illegal immigrant.” So we hope that in implementing the best practices of this memo, AP writers will make the determination that with all of the alternative descriptions available, there is no point in choosing an inaccurate, offensive and harmful one.
And the harmful offense of that language cannot be minimized in the way Kent does in the guide.
Kent dismisses this primary concern, which has been articulated by readers, fellow journalists, the legal and linguist communities, undocumented immigrants and the Nobel laureate and holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, who coined the phrase “No human being is illegal.” Kent states, “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 don’t read the term this way? Describing people as “illegal immigrants” is a slippery slope to saying “illegals” and in the end, people experience all of these related terms as dehumanizing and racially charged. It does not make a huge difference to stop using “illegal” as a noun if the AP’s policy is to use “illegal” as an adjective that describes the “noun.” We are talking about human beings, not a set of actions.
The memo does not talk about the racially charged aspect of the i-word. This summer the Center for American Progress, released “How Today’s Immigration Enforcement Policies Impact Children, Families, and Communities.” The study reveals fears children of immigrants have about the concept of immigration as well as an implicit bias in which they equate immigration with illegality. Also released this summer by the National Hispanic Media Coalition and Latino Decisions was the study and poll “Impact of Media Stereotypes on Opinions and Attitudes Towards Latinos.” The report shows implicit bias as non-Latinos equate Latinos with “illegal immigrants.” Earlier this year, a poll conducted by Fox News Latino found that nearly half of Latino voters think the term “illegal immigrant” is offensive.
The AP’s policy updates are hopeful, but all of the evidence is there for them to retire the i-word altogether. A core piece of the organization’s brand is that it is a leader on style, yet it lags behind news outlets such as NBC, ABC, CNN, Univision and Fox News Latino. The APs editors have an important choice to make, not just about what side of history they will be on, but about how long they are willing to risk their reputation as leaders and style arbiters.