“Illegal Immigrant” Is Now Out, But AP Doesn’t Tell Us What’s In

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The Associated Press has announced that it will no longer use the phrase “illegal immigrant” in its stories. Here’s the new entry in the AP Stylebook:

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.

AP’s announcement explains that they’ve been “ridding the Stylebook of labels,” and that “this 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.”

I’ve used “illegal immigrant” before, and I’ve always had a hard time buying the argument that it’s an inherently insulting term. But times change, and I generally adhere to AP style since that’s what I learned many decades ago. Cranky stubbornness aside, I certainly don’t have any reason to make an exception here, so I won’t. Illegal immigrant is now out.

But I do still have a problem. AP apparently now feels that there’s no acceptable way to refer to people who are in the country illegally. Neither “undocumented immigrant” nor “unauthorized immigrant,” is acceptable, and neither is anything else. Labels are flatly not allowed, despite the fact that we label people all the time. Kevin Drum is a blogger. Barack Obama is a politician. Etc.

This leaves us with constructions like “John Doe is a person who immigrated to the United States illegally.” Or: “A bill pending in Congress would bar immigrants who are in the country illegally from receiving Medicaid.” Clunkiness aside, I guess we can all get used to that, but I’m not sure how it especially serves the cause of accuracy.

Jose Antonio Vargas, who has been at the forefront of this battle, apparently thinks that “undocumented immigrant” is fine. Other campaigners against “illegal immigrant” seem to agree. I’ve never been too keen on that formulation, but I can live with it. Unless I get further guidance from the MoJo copy desk, that will probably be my usual descriptive phrase in the future.

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We didn't know what to expect when we told you we needed to raise $400,000 before our fiscal year closed on June 30, and we're thrilled to report that our incredible community of readers contributed some $415,000 to help us keep charging as hard as we can during this crazy year.

You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

The months and years ahead won't be easy. Far from it. But there's no one we'd rather face the big challenges with than you, our committed and passionate readers, and our team of fearless reporters who show up every day.

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