AP Joins the Fray, Elaborates on Its Use of ‘Illegal Immigrant’

Him Ranjit joined the Drop the I-Word storytelling series last year. Click on the photo for his story. (Photo via Colorlines)

Three weeks after the New York Times took flack for continuing to use the phrase “illegal immigrant,” the Associated Press released on Oct. 19 “Reviewing the use of ‘illegal immigrant,” an updated guide on their use the controversial term and writing about immigration issues.

In the release, Tom Kent, AP’s Deputy Managing Editor for Standards and Production, offered detailed recommendations to journalists covering immigration issues, while continue using the phrase “illegal immigrant.” The news site Colorlines, which has advocated for the term to be dropped, published an opinion piece by Monica Novoa, who calls the guide a “mixed bag.”

On the 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.

Kent wrote: “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’).” Novoa responded that in actuality, the word “illegal” does add a sense of “criminality” and pointed out that many in the fields of law and journalism avoid the term.

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.”

Novoa explained that Kent disagreed with the phrases, “undocumented immigrants” or “unauthorized immigrants,” saying that these terms suggested that it’s only a matter of having “minor paperwork.”

He wrote: “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.” Kent also advised journalists against lumping people together and disregarding their distinct backgrounds and means of entry.

“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.”

Another statement of Kent’s appeared especially troubling for Novoa.

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.

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