Donna Anderson
April 4, 2013

On Tuesday, April 2, 2013, the Associated Press made a significant change to the AP Style Guide, telling journalists that it’s no longer acceptable to use the term “illegal immigrant” because it’s too vague. Instead, they prefer “living in or entering a country illegally or without legal permission.” You say “tomato” and I say “tomahto,” but if it walks like a duck and it talks like a duck, a rose by any other name would still be… an illegal immigrant.

The AP Stylebook’s Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll says, “Our goal always is to use the most precise and accurate words so that the meaning is clear to any reader anywhere,” Carroll said.

The change, effective immediately, prohibits the use of the term “illegal immigrant” and further states, “Except in direct quotations, do not use the terms illegal alien, an illegal, illegals or undocumented.”

According to Carrol, the word “illegal” can only be applied to an action, not an individual, so the phrase “illegal immigrant” is an inaccurate and misleading label. She compared it to labeling someone as a schizophrenic. She says a more accurate description, and one that adds more credibility to the story, would be to say that someone “had been diagnosed with schizophrenia.”

David Leopold, a Huffington Post blogger, agrees with Caroll, calling the terms “insensitive” and stretching semantics even further by saying, “They erroneously imply that a noncitizen unlawfully in the U.S. is, by virtue of his or her very presence, committing a criminal offense, rather than a civil immigration violation.” Either way, a “criminal offense” and a “civil immigration violation” both fall under the definition of “illegal.” You say “potato”, I say “potahto.”

Citing an antiquated 1996 Department of Homeland Security document, which is titled, ironically, “Illegal Alien Resident Population,” Leopold says that most Americans would be surprised to learn that:

“Nearly half the undocumented population entered the U.S. legally. Some came as visitors, others as students, and others as temporary workers. Some fell out of status because they took ill and were forced to drop out of school, others because they fell victim to domestic violence or other crimes, and others because their sponsoring employer mistreated them. Even those foreign nationals that entered the country surreptitiously in direct violation of the immigration law are not ‘illegal’.”

Yes, these undocumented individuals may have entered the country legally, but if they’re no longer documented, then they’re here illegally. And if they entered the country “surreptitiously in direct violation of the immigration law” then they’re definitely here “illegally.” It doesn’t matter if we call them “illegal immigrants” or “people living in our country illegally” – the word “Illegal” is what we need to be concerned about.

Even Big Sis, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, says she’s not really “caught up in the vocabulary wars.” She said, “They are immigrants who are here illegally. That’s an illegal immigrant.”

Immigrant advocacy groups are praising the AP for their style-change, especially since it comes just in time to help influence public opinion on immigration legislation. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus, a group of 27 House Democrats, call it “a great step forward.”

But changes to the AP Stylebook have far-reaching effects. The Stylebook is the primary writing style guide for journalists all over the world and it’s used for online reporting as well as print and broadcast journalism. Many news organizations won’t even accept a story for publication or broadcast if it doesn’t strictly adhere to AP style guidelines.

Which means we’ll no longer be hearing about “illegal immigrants.” Now, mainstream media will be telling us about “people who’ve been trapped here in our country and, through no fault of their own, don’t happen to have legally acceptable documents.”

Michelle Malkin of says, “It won’t be long before illegal border crossers, illegal visa overstayers, illegal deportation evaders, document fraudsters and illegal alien traffickers are all referred to as “our fellow Americans.” Without the quotations. Mark my words.” And Donald Trump says, “Now AP is banning the term “illegal immigrants” What should we call them? ‘Americans’?! This country’s political press is amazing!”

Currently, the New York Times is also considering changes to its style guide but, according to editor Margaret Sullivan, “From what I can gather, The Times’s changes will not be nearly as sweeping as The AP’s,” Sullivan said, adding, “I would be surprised to see The Times ban the use of ‘illegal immigrant,’ as the AP has done.”

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