The Associated Press Updates Its Stylebook, Still Clings to I-Word

AP editors insist that the word is accurate, even though it dehumanizes immigrants. Make your voice heard in time for the 2012 edition.

By Mu00f3nica Novoa Nov 10, 2011

The Associated Press updated its i-word style last week. While many reporters and editors are re-evaluating how they describe undocumented immigrants in a way that does not dehumanize them or compromise constitutionality, accuracy and professional journalistic ethics, the change from the AP still falls short:

We’ve updated our style on illegal immigrant. The term is used to describe someone who has entered a country illegally or who resides in a country in violation of civil or criminal law. Acceptable variations include living in the country without legal permission. Use of these terms, as with any terms implying illegalities, must be based on reliable information about a person’s true status. Unless quoting someone, AP does not use the terms illegal alien, an illegal, illegals or the term undocumented.

According to the AP, the original entry, "illegal immigrant," was created in 2004 in response to the heightened debate over border security and the enforcement of immigration laws after 9/11. The previous entry read: "Used to describe someone who has entered the country illegally or who resides in the country illegally. It is the preferred term, not illegal alien or undocumented worker. Do not use the shortened term an illegal or illegals."

Here’s what AP deputy standards editor David Minthorn had to say about the first description: "Together, the terms describe a person who resides in a country unlawfully by residency or citizenship requirements … Alternatives like undocumented worker, illegal alien or illegals lack precision or may have negative connotations. Illegal immigrant, on the other hand, is accurate and neutral for news stories."

"Undocumented might imply that illegal immigration is simply a matter of not having one’s papers in order," Minthorn told Richard Prince over at Maynard Institute. "It may be used to minimize what could be a violation of the law — evading controls at a border or living in a country without legal permission … So we advise against using the term on our own. If an authority uses it, and we quote the authority, that’s different … But as a blanket synonym for illegal immigrant? No, it’s usually imprecise or inaccurate …We both broadened the definition and made it more nuanced, including specifying acceptable alternative phrasing such as living in a country without legal permission. We believe the AP language is precise and neutral in our use of illegal immigrant."

One thing is for sure: the term "illegal immigrant" is not neutral. The AP does not want to use "undocumented immigrant," because they don’t think it goes far enough in pointing out other potential alleged violations. Instead of describing people and cases uniquely, they want to use a term that completely denies due process. There are other terms the AP can use that are not dehumanizing and that are accurate.

Conservative American political pollster Frank Luntz issued a memo (PDF) that recommended operatives promote use of the term "illegal immigrants" to intentionally link immigrants to criminality and to create a politically useful division among voters. And a recent UCLA Chicano Studies Research study on hate speech in conservative radio found that all forms of the i-word, aimed at both immigrants and activists, amounted to the spreading of political nativism.

As "illegal immigrant," has been codified by the Associated Press and Frank Luntz, the shorthand slur "illegals" has also proliferated. The i-word in all its forms is in the hate mail we get at Drop the I-Word and we see it everyday in the comments sections of media outlets across the country.

The Poynter Institute’s Mallary JeanTenore interviewed Michele Salcedo, political desk anchor at the AP and president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. Salcedo doesn’t agree with the AP’s style and believes the term oversimplifies the complexities of immigration. She had this to say:

"Using the word ‘illegal’ to describe an immigrant puts journalists in the position of being judge and jury," she said via email. "It casts all immigration cases as black and white: legal or illegal. That leaves little room for this most complicated law’s nuances." There’s a tendency to carelessly use the term "illegal" when reporting on immigration, Salcedo said: "In every other legal context, whether criminal or civil, journalists are scrupulously taught, and editors keep a close eye on copy, to make sure someone accused of a crime or violation isn’t convicted in the story, that they have a right to the presumption of innocence," she said. "The coverage of immigration is the exception to those journalistic standards."

We agree with Salcedo and with the UNITY association, which this fall endorsed Drop the I-Word. We also agree with the 7,800-member Society of Professional Journalists resolution to discontinue use of the term "illegal alien" and continued discussion to re-evaluate the implications of the use of "illegal immigrant."

To that end, has made a deliberate effort to update its styleguide in a way that reflects the changes we hope will be adopted by other newsrooms. You can find the Colorlines styleguide on immigration here

The Associated Press is looking ahead to the 2012 edition of the AP Stylebook and would like to hear from readers. Deadline for submissions is Nov. 15. Go here to let them know that use of the i-word is indefensible. Let them know "illegal immigrant" is dehumanizing,  racially charged, inaccurate, not legal terminology and not conducive to understanding the immigration debate.