The Associated Press released an Oct. 18 “staff newsletter” about the term “illegal immigrant.” As iMediaEthics has written, the debate over the term “illegal immigrant” re-surfaced recently after journalist Jose Antonio Vargas called for the New York Times and Associated Press to stop using the phrase. Vargas revealed last year he is an “undocumented immigrant.” The New York Times’ public editor Margaret Sullivan and associate managing editor for standards both defended the term.
The Associated Press “guidance,” from Deputy Managing Editor for Standards and Production Tom Kent, notes that there have been “requests…to ban the term” but explains the Associated Press’ stance. Kent’s guidance mirrored comments from the AP’s spokesperson Paul Colford earlier this month in response to Vargas’ call.
Kent wrote that there is an “incorrect assertion that we insist on the use of ‘illegal immigrant.'” He added that ‘illegal immigrant’ is not the only term we use,” referring to the 2011 AP Stylebook update to “make clear that other wording is always acceptable.”
Kent’s memo argued that many of the terms often used in this situation – including “undocumented,” “unauthorized” and even “illegal immigrant” — can be misleading or inaccurate. Two examples of mis-use of “illegal immigrant,” offered by Kent were:
- “if a young man was brought into the country by parents who entered illegally, he didn’t consciously commit any act of ‘immigration’ himself. It’s best to describe such a person as living in the country without legal permission, and then explain his story.”
- “There are also cases where a person’s right to be in the country is currently in legal dispute; in such a case, we can’t yet say the person is here illegally.”
Kent challenged terms like “undocumented” and “unauthorized,” because “these terms obscure the essential fact that such people are here in violation of the law,” they “can make a person’s illegal presence in the country appear to be a matter of minor paperwork,” and they may be wrong in certain cases. As iMediaEthics has written, linguist Otto Santa Ana argues that “unauthorized” is a “non-partisan and certainly un-euphemistic” term. Santa Ana told iMediaEthics in an Oct. 16 email that:
“The same criticism of vigilantism holds for journalists who use the other politically partisan term, undocumented. A 50/50 mix of these partisan political terms does not achieve what professional journalists often seek, a neutral or non-partisan presentation of the issues. To that end I propose using a non-partisan and certainly un-euphemistic ‘UNAUTHORIZED’ with references to undocumented immigrants.”
Santa Ana also pointed iMediaEthics to his 2006 comments that the “pejorative ‘illegal immigrants’ bolster a partisan stance.”
Kent added that the AP “refer routinely” to other people as “illegal” such as “illegal loggers, illegal miners, illegal vendors, and so forth” but the AP specifically guides against saying just “illegals.” ABC News called “the comparison” not “really equivalent” because it said:
“A news archive search for ‘illegal immigrant’ and ‘AP’ during the past year found more than 3,000 entries — the max limit for search results. A search for ‘AP’ with ‘illegal logger’ returned 69 entries, with ‘illegal miner’ returned nine entries, and with ‘illegal vendor’ returned two entries.”
The AP memo also outlines “some best practices going forward” including:
- “Be specific about nationalities”
- “Be especially careful” in reporting on the details of raids
- Don’t write about “people violating immigration laws without ‘reliable information about a person’s true status’ — which most commonly means a legal charge against them or a court decision.”
Also, the memo adds the term “temporary resident status,” which “will be added to the online Stylebook,” as the “concise way to refer to people illegally in the United States who win a temporary right to remain in the country under the Obama Administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.”
Related to the “illegal immigrant” terminology debate, student-run newspaper The Daily Californian announced Oct. 2 that it won’t use the term “illegal immigrant.” The Daily Cal wrote:
“On Sunday, the Senior Editorial Board voted to no longer use the term ‘illegal immigrant’ when reporting on immigration issues. Out of preference and habit, it has already been the practice of our reporters and editors to opt for the word ‘undocumented.’ …
“We believe that the modifier ‘illegal’ unnecessarily offends our readership while the word ‘undocumented’ is a more effective and objective way to describe one’s immigration status.”
iMediaEthics is writing to the Daily Cal for more information and will update with any response.
Hat Tip: Poynter
UPDATE: 10/22/2012 12:22 PM EST: Added info