AP Drops "illegal immigrant"; SF Chronicle already calling them "Americans"

By Jon Feere and Jon Feere on April 2, 2013

In a victory for those who want to further blur the line between legal and illegal, the Associated Press has announced its decision to stop using the term "illegal immigrant" in its articles. Instead, the new "acceptable variations" include "living in or entering a country illegally" or "without legal permission". Journalists make it a rule to be concise and not wordy. But such standards are thrown out the window when it comes to the illegal immigration issue, it seems.

The legally accurate term for those in the United States illegally is "illegal alien". Prior to today's decision, the AP supported use of the term "illegal immigrant". But even that term represented a move away from accurate language. This language trend is part of a concerted effort by high-immigration groups and amnesty advocates that seeks to get journalists to embrace activist terminology. This effort also rears its head every time a journalist uses a euphemism for amnesty (e.g. "normalization of status").

Last year, I analyzed language used in the immigration debate and attempted to highlight some of the arguments made by advocates of activist terminology. One such activist was linguist Jennifer Sclafani who, when asked by the American Journalism Review whether it makes a difference to use the term "illegal alien" as opposed to "illegal immigrant", responded, "Yes, absolutely it does. No matter which way you look at it, an alien is always an outsider."

And that is the correct way of looking at immigration. Those who are here on tourist visas, for example, are legal aliens. Those who entered illegally are illegal aliens. In both instances, they are aliens — i.e. "outsiders" — who are not part of the American citizenry. This is a basic legal and logical fact. The word "immigrant" should be reserved for those who – as defined by Merriam-Webster – come to a country for "permanent residence". In other words, the term "legal immigrant" or "immigrant" should only be used where the individual is entering the United States on a permanent basis and has received a green card. In fact, the official USCIS glossary defines "immigrant" as someone who has been "admitted to the United States as a lawful permanent resident". If he later acquires U.S. citizenship he becomes a citizen and is no longer an immigrant. This makes the term "illegal immigrant" somewhat self-contradictory.

Despite the term's problems, the Associated Press defended use of the term "illegal immigrant" as recently as October of last year. To its credit, the news-gathering outlet pushed back against activist groups and also ruled out use of the term "undocumented." But only a few months later, the AP has dropped even "illegal immigrant".

The AP explains that the change is justified because it is "ridding the Stylebook of labels" noting that instead of referring to someone as a schizophrenic, they refer to a person as someone "diagnosed with schizophrenia". And since they now plan to label behavior rather than people, as they put it, the term "illegal immigrant" must go. One wonders whether this logic will also apply to the thieves, adulterers, and murderers who become the subject of an AP article. No longer will we read reports of murderers; instead expect to see "persons engaged in an act that unlawfully ends the life of another."

It's unclear how far this trend will go. In another piece from last year, I highlighted an e-mail exchange I had with editors at two California newspapers that referred to illegal aliens as "undocumented Californians". Of course one does not acquire a state's citizenship simply by entering the state. A U.S. citizen from Nevada who visits San Francisco does not automatically become a Californian, nor does a citizen from Mexico who crosses the national border into San Diego. But this was just the start. In February of this year, the San Francisco Chronicle referred to an illegal alien from South Korea as "one of an estimated 2.1 million American youths" who might be eligible for Deferred Action. According to some journalists, illegal aliens are already Americans. I sent the Chronicle a few inquiries about this description (and a separate error in the article), but the writers have refused to respond to my e-mails.

The point is, when it comes to language in the immigration debate, the newspaper industry seems to be slowly shifting from the term "illegal alien" to "American".