The Associated Press announced last week that it no longer sanctions the term "illegal immigrant" in its stylebook. Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll explained that the AP has decided it is wrong for reporters to use the word "illegal" to describe a person, but it's OK to use the word to "describe only an action, such as living or immigrating to a country illegally."
Make no mistake about this decision. Whatever prompted the change, its practical effect is to delegitimize those who have called for tougher enforcement of U.S. immigration law. The AP just erased from journalism's lexicon the important distinction between legal and illegal immigrants.
The racial justice website Colorlines launched its "Drop the I-Word" campaign with the argument, "No human being is illegal." That argument has penetrated my thick skull when it comes to using the I-word as a noun for illegal immigrants, "illegals." I get it. It's rude.
But if no human being is illegal, some human beings are illegal immigrants. They overstayed their visas or crossed the border illegally. They're not legal immigrants; they're illegal immigrants. It doesn't speak well for journalism when the AP Stylebook directs reporters to write in a way that obscures reality.
(Some critics, such as Mark Krikorian of the pro-enforcement Center for Immigration Studies, believe that the AP should refer to them as "illegal aliens" — as opposed to legal aliens. "Alien" is the more accurate term for noncitizen residents. But it's archaic English, likely to confuse science fiction fans.)
In October, Carroll defended the use of "illegal immigrant" and rejected the suggestion that the term offended anyone's dignity. After all, she observed, "we refer routinely to illegal loggers, illegal miners, illegal vendors and so forth."
Last week, however, she wrote that the AP's position had evolved as part of an effort to rid the stylebook of labels. The stylebook now tells reporters to refer to what they used to call a schizophrenic as someone "diagnosed with schizophrenia." Even as news space shrinks, the stylebook tells reporters to take the long route and look for "the best way to describe someone who is in a country without permission" — also known as a long clause over which readers skip.
In October, the AP rightly rejected calls that it replace "illegal immigrant" with "undocumented" or "unauthorized" immigrant on the grounds that those terms "can make a person's illegal presence in the country to appear a matter of minor paperwork." Ahem. "In a country without permission" doesn't?
As a journalist, I empathize with the editors' dilemma. No matter what term the AP uses, feathers will be ruffled, and birds will squawk. But when AP style entails telling reporters not to use an honest description, it strays from the mission of reporting into the land of exhorting.
About 11 million illegal immigrants do exist. The only way to change that status quo is to change the law, if Washington so chooses. Until that day, it's not the AP's job to rewrite the law or rewrite its stylebook to obscure that law.
Email Debra J. Saunders at firstname.lastname@example.org.