End of 'illegal' immigrants? AP change mirrors public shift, some say.

AP will no longer use the phrase 'illegal immigrant.' The AP stylebook has significant influence in the media world, meaning the change is about more than just semantics.

Nick Ut/AP/File
Illegal immigrant Mayra Chavarria holds her high school diploma while waiting outside the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles offices last year. AP will no longer use the phrase 'illegal immigrant.'

The move by the Associated Press this week to drop the term “illegal immigrant” from its influential stylebook has caused a ruckus in the debate over immigration in the US.

Advocates who have long pushed for a change in labels have praised the decision. But others, including fellow journalists as well as government figures, are deeply divided over the push to adopt new terminology, dubbing it everything from political correctness run amok to obfuscation of illegal behavior.

Whatever the stance, this decision is a good measure of where the debate is headed, says David Mark, editor-in-chief of the online political site, Politix. “The AP is very influential and is read by millions and is a good reflection of public opinion and mores when it comes to thorny issues it covers.”

The language used to frame hot-button issues is frequently hammered out in the media, he adds.

“You can see this in everything from race relations to abortion,” he says. “This move by such a large media organization is an indication that the pro-amnesty forces are slowly winning the immigration debate, no matter what some conservatives may say.”

Major news outlets such as The New York Times and The Washington Post have issued statements this week showing that they are willing to take the question seriously.

The Times's public editor, Margaret Sullivan, blogged Tuesday that earlier in her career she had supported the term “illegal immigrant” but had changed her opinion in recent months. Although she has no role in making the final decision, she expects the Times to issue new guidelines as early as this week.

“So many people find it offensive to refer to a person with an adjective like 'illegal' that I now favor the use of 'undocumented' or 'unauthorized’ as alternatives,” she notes in the blog. Smaller regional news outlets such as The Miami Herald have already dropped the term from their coverage.

The new AP guideline speaks to the heart of the political debate over immigration today, says Robin Jacobson, an associate professor at the University of Puget Sound who teaches courses in immigration politics. The struggle over immigration reform is essentially about how to understand and conceptualize immigrants, she notes in an e-mail interview, “not about the exact numerical limit on admissions or the details of immigration procedures."

"Is undocumented immigration to be understood as a crime or a technical bureaucratic violation? Are those without the proper papers rational actors in an irrational system or criminals who don't respect any rule of law?" she adds.

In this debate and others like it, the AP has extraordinary, but unrecognized, power, says Hillary Warren, an associate professor of communication at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio. “It determines what we call something.” 

In February, the AP changed its style to allow for the use of "husband" or "wife," instead of "partner," when referring to same-sex marriage. “That language both recognized a significant change in American society and reinforced that change,” she adds in an e-mail.

Now, deciding that a group of people would no longer be called "illegal" will change the assumptions that consumers will make when reading or hearing a story about immigration, Professor Warren says.

Others agree. The style change “reflects a growing consensus that undocumented migration is not an indication of criminality or a rejection of the rule of law,” adds Professor Jacobson of the University of Puget Sound

But some media analysts suggest that the AP has abdicated a crucial role in the media landscape. “One of the major influences on American journalism in the modern era – the Associated Press (since 1846) – has bowed to political correctness in its decision to remove any reference to 'illegal immigration' from the venerable Stylebook,” says Mitch Land, dean of the School of Communication & the Arts at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va., in an e-mail.

Calling the AP stylebook a “Bible of American journalism,” he says it is on a “downward spiral into the abyss of the so-called 'progressive' to be all things to all people with taking no offense to anyone.”

The social and economic costs that must be borne by working Americans, whose taxes must support the immigrants, must be accurately represented in the media marketplace, he says. “We depend upon a common lexicon of references for consistency and professionalism, not some illusion of fairness.”

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