Why the AP was right to stop saying “Illegal immigrant”

The Associated Press announced this month that from now on, “illegal immigrant” is no longer the correct style. It’s a change that’s been a long time coming, and one that could have a major impact on the debate over immigration. And it’s the correct move because it offers reporters a chance to clarify and inform, rather than inflame.

Perhaps not surprisingly, not everyone is thrilled with the change. At the New Republic, John McWhorter writes that it’s a crime against logic, because people who enter the U.S. without proper permission are, prima facie, illegal immigrants, and that we use adjectives like “convicted” to describe people already.

His argument that the basis of the change is the slogan that “A person shouldn’t be called illegal” is a straw man, though. The change in style has the effect of being more humane, but there are other good reasons, as well.

First, the AP already recommends using language that describes rather than damns. A good example: someone uses a wheelchair, they aren’t confined to a wheelchair.

And that applies to crimes, as well. For the most part, despite what McWhorter says, in most cases, someone wouldn’t be referred to as a “drunk driver.” Before trial a reporter would write that a person was accused of drunken driving, and after conviction, that a person was convicted of drunken driving. The larger point is that the word illegal should be applied to the action that is against the law, which is what the AP now recommends.

The Stylebook no longer sanctions the term “illegal immigrant” or the use of “illegal” to describe a person. Instead, it tells users that “illegal” should describe only an action, such as living in or immigrating to a country illegally.

So instead of illegal immigrant—or worse simply “illegal,” which despite McWhorter’s protests is a slur, and a clear one at that, because it refers not to an action but the entirety of a person’s existence—a reporter would write about someone entering the U.S. illegally. Changing that doesn’t imply approval of the act, it just brings the language more in line with the rest of the AP’s style.

There are extreme cases in which a description is applied to a person instead of an action. Mcwhorter gives the example of a serial killer.

To frame it as that illegal immigrant is a “slur” requires that on principle we apply the same judgment to, say, serial killer (what about the times in between murders when he isn’t killing anyone?).

But, of course, no reporter would call someone a serial killer until that person had been convicted. And that’s without mentioning the not-so-subtle false equivalence between serial murder and illegal immigration. Both actions are against the law, but there is an enormous difference of scale, and one is a criminal action, while the other is against civil law.

The best reason for the change is that it allows a clarification of what, exactly, is going on. Just as journalists are not supposed to convict people accused of crimes with their words, they are now supposed to attribute any accusation of someone entering the country illegally, as well as to clarify the specifics of each case.

Do not describe people as violating immigration laws without attribution.

Specify wherever possible how someone entered the country illegally and from where. Crossed the border? Overstayed a visa? What nationality?

Those are all important questions, and they help actually inform people. And despite protestations from McWhorter in Time about political correctness—a phrase so overused that it is essentially meaningless and can be marshaled against any effort to make language more humane and accurate—that information, provided in clear, accurate language, is essential.

In both articles, McWhorter presupposes that any change in language about immigration must be an effort to change the way people think about immigration, and to question the rightness of immigration law as it now stands, But that isn’t necessarily the case. Some of the key aims of journalism—fairness, accuracy, and clarity—are all served by this change, and that’s enough to make it the correct decision, without delving into the debate over immigration itself.

Immigration is a serious topic, and it deserves a serious discussion. By removing loaded terms and pejoratives from news stories, the new AP policy will help facilitate that serious discussion.


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