Associated Press policy change on “illegal immigrant”: a harbinger for immigration changes to come?


If you have ever wondered why “No.1” in newspapers is spelled that way instead of “#1,” or “Number 1,” or “Number One,” well, that’s AP style.

And the No.1 reason it exists is to enable the Associated Press’s cookie-cutter approach in the dissemination of news copy to multiple outlets worldwide all at once.

To a journalist, the tyrannical AP style is your basic occupational straitjacket. For the sake of copy flow, what it says goes.

But what if the Stylebook gets in the way of journalism’s purported mission of truth-telling or, at least, providing unbiased information? That’s the reason the phrase “illegal immigrant” became AP’s No.1 problem this week.

Lawyers know words are important, especially when it comes to the word “illegal.” Illegal? Says who? I’ll see you in court.

But when journalists have used the term, at least on immigration matters, there’s never been much question.

According to AP style, you were illegal, and, well, that was that. You had the book thrown at you in every immigration news story in the land.

But this week, just as a barrage of immigration policy coverage is about to begin in earnest, AP decided it could no longer justify its policy of using the term “illegal immigrant.”

The phrase no longer makes journalistic sense.

And neither does the oft-used PC alternative phrase “undocumented immigrant.”

AP is now declaring it a journalistic sin to use the word “illegal” as an adjective when describing a person.

You can still use the word “illegal” to describe an action, according to the Stylebook.

So a border crossing can be illegal, but a person cannot.

Reporters have never used “illegal” to describe Charles Manson, Al Capone, Billy the Kid or any other ne’er-do-well. Maybe that’s because calling someone an “illegal” murderer or criminal just sounds stupid and redundant. So why then for years have editors had no problem calling some brown guy from Mexico who crossed a border without papers an “illegal immigrant” without so much as an attribution?

Was it laziness slipping into racism?

The bias in the language was always apparent to me. In my print days, I never used the term “illegal immigrant” except to quote someone. (That’s always been the journalists’ cop-out: “Someone said it.” ) But when it shows up in AP copy, no one even bothers to throw in an “alleged.” When it comes to using the term “illegal,” a journalist was judge, jury, and inadvertent messenger for the xenophobic.

No more.

Since the entire news industry uses AP as a source and style guide, the banning of the phrase could represent a verbal sea change. That little phrase “illegal immigrant” was giving the right wing an insidious propaganda perk in every news article governed by AP style.

Now simply by changing its Stylebook, AP has taken a big chunk of racism out of our culture.

Imagine all the times you’ve heard the phrase coming from an “objective” source, when all along what you’ve been witnessing is the drilling in of subliminal hate. Just because AP allowed it, the Bill O’Reillys of the world were having a field day.

No more.

Just to balance things out, AP is also saying that the term “undocumented” is no remedy, because immigrants here illegally can have plenty of documents—all fake. Fair enough.

So here’s what reporters on deadline will now read should they ever get stuck as to proper usage. They’ll turn to the AP Stylebook for guidance on the phrase “illegal immigration”:

Entering or residing in a country in violation of civil or criminal law. Except in direct quotes essential to the story, use illegal only to refer to an action, not a person; illegal immigration, but not illegal immigrant.

Acceptable variations include living in or entering a country illegally or without legal permission.

Except in direct quotations, do not use the terms illegal alien, an illegal, illegals, or undocumented.

Do not describe people as violating immigration laws without attribution.

Specify wherever possible how someone entered the country illegally and from where. Crossed the border? Overstayed a visa? What nationality?

People who were brought into the country as children should not be described as having immigrated illegally. For people granted a temporary right to remain in the U.S. under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, use temporary resident status, with details on the program lower in the story.

Of course, you expect some pushback from journalists. Copy editors at the Chicago Tribune are complaining it makes headline writing difficult. Tough. Some papers with their own stylebooks, like The New York Times, are now planning some changes.

And then there’s the reaction from professional conservatives like Filipino American Michelle Malkin, who strangely attacked the change as the “mainstream media” going “Open Borders” on everyone.

I’d expect nothing less from a woman, who, among other things, makes her living defending the internment of Japanese Americans.

On this AP issue, Malkin rages on like a Cold Warrior who can’t quite understand the changing world. But the style change is just a harbinger of the inevitable policy changes and the difficulties to come.

Recently, even the AFL-CIO has made a difficult compromise on guest workers that will surely fuel debate among union supporters. It’s a tough stand, but like the GOP, the unions see the need to change with the times to stay viable. In that sense, maybe part of the reason for AP’s change may be the realization that a growing proportion of its readers now view the phrase “illegal immigrant” as a patently offensive slur. In the face of readership declines, newspapers can’t afford to offend or alienate the readers they still have.

Incidentally, if free-market conservatives on the right had any integrity, they’d naturally embrace the idea of open de-regulated borders. Malkin’s shrill insults? The late William F. Buckley, an ardent open borders advocate, would be rolling in his grave.

Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator.
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The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.
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