‘Illegal’ is now illegal at the Associated Press

‘Illegal’ is now illegal at the Associated Press
Should this cartoon caption read: “Attitudes toward immigrants who entered the country illegally”?
(Ted Rall for The Times)

In lecturing to journalism students over the years, I have pointed out that newspaper style guides have adapted  to changes in politics and society. For example, the 1976 version of the New York Times Manual of Style and Usage warned reporters not to use the word “gay” as a synonym for “homosexual” unless it appeared in a quotation  or the name of an organization.

How Times have changed:  The NYT now uses the G-word without apology or distancing quotation marks.  Obviously that reflects the pervasiveness of  “gay” in popular parlance, but  that’s only part of the explanation. The NYT, and other news organizations,  also are  honoring the wishes of  groups such as  GLAAD (formerly the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), whose Media Reference Guide offers this advice: “Avoid identifying gay people as  ‘homosexuals,’  an outdated term considered derogatory and offensive to many lesbian and gay people.”


This week the Associated Press, whose stylebook is the usage bible for most American newspapers, announced that it would no longer use the term “illegal immigrant.” Instead, journalists are advised to refer to people “living in or entering a country illegally” or “without legal permission.”  The obvious explanation for the change is that the AP responded to pressure from within and outside the organization to do away with a term that people found offensive.  

Certainly advocates of the change thought they had  an effect.  The  United Farm Workers sent out a victorious email pointing out that Helen Chavez, the widow of Cesar Chavez, had started a petition urging news organizations to stop using the word “illegal” in reference to farm workers, other Latinos and immigrants.  In the petition Chavez likened “illegal” to slurs such as “wetbacks” and “dirty Mexicans.” The AP’s turnabout was also a victory for the journalist Jose Antonio Vargas,  who (as the Columbia Journalism Review put it) “came out as undocumented two years ago” and who also had pleaded with the AP  and the New York Time to abandon “illegal immigrant.”   In testimony before Congress, Vargas insisted that  “no human being is illegal.”


The term “illegal immigrant ” (which  the Los Angeles Times continues to use, though different terminology is under discussion) strikes me as  acceptable shorthand for “an immigrant who has entered the country illegally” -- just as “illegal tenant” is an apt description of someone who occupies an apartment without a lease. Vargas’ airy assertion that “no human being is illegal” is factually incorrect, if he is suggesting that  people in his situation are indistinguishable in their legal status from U.S. citizens. (To be fair, President  Obama came close to making the same point last year when he said that children  brought here illegally by their parents “are Americans in their heart, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper.”) 

Finally, it seems illogical for people who in one breath urge the “legalization” of immigrants to deny in the next that those same immigrants are “illegal.”

  But the AP disagrees with me, which is fine.  But instead of acknowledging that it was satisfying  Chavez, Vargas and other critics who found “illegal immigrant” offensive, the agency offered a convoluted linguistic explanation. According to Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll, the decision to junk “illegal immigrant” was influenced by a revision of another section of the stylebook dealing with mental illness. “The new section on mental health issues argues for using credibly sourced diagnoses instead of labels.” She wrote. “Saying someone was ‘diagnosed with schizophrenia’ instead of schizophrenic, for example. And that discussion about labeling people, instead of behavior, led us back to ‘illegal immigrant’ again. We concluded that to be consistent, we needed to change our guidance.”

Leave aside the question of whether it makes a difference if  someone is described as “schizophrenic” rather than  “diagnosed with schizophrenia.”  The notion that the AP abandoned “illegal immigrant” because of some epiphany about the distinction between “people” and “behavior” is laughable.   It was lobbied to eliminate a term that people found hurtful, and it concluded that it didn’t want to offend -- just as the New York Times did when it decided that “gay” was good.



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