'Illegal immigrant': What words to use becomes a debate

2013-04-05T00:00:00Z 'Illegal immigrant': What words to use becomes a debateCindy Chang and Marisa Gerber Los Angeles Times Arizona Daily Star

LOS ANGELES - As lawmakers in Washington debate the possibility of legalization for 11 million immigrants, a more basic question has emerged in the nation's newsrooms and beyond: what to call those immigrants.

Most news organizations have long used the term "illegal immigrant," which some people find offensive. They prefer "undocumented," arguing that "illegal" is dehumanizing and lumps border crossers with serious criminals. Some even view "illegal immigrant" as tantamount to hate speech and refuse to utter it.

This week, The Associated Press revised its influential stylebook and jettisoned "illegal immigrant," reversing a decision from six months earlier. The AP did not offer an exact replacement, instead recommending that writers fully describe an individual's immigration status.

The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times have indicated that they will soon issue their own edicts.

A stylebook update is typically an esoteric affair of interest only to journalists and linguists, but this one has prompted a wider discussion featuring claims of political correctness gone wild, relief over the banishment of a disfavored term, and snarky Twitter asides.

"Murderer is out. The term 'accused of unlawfully ceasing the life of another' preferred," one Twitter user wrote, appending the hashtag NewAPStyle, which calls up mealy mouthed descriptions for subjects as diverse as tax increases and former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford's mistress.

For immigrants, especially those who have lived without papers, the issue is personal.

"When one is told that one is illegal, it really creates this identity of being a criminal," said Carlos Amador, 28, who works with young immigrants at the University of California-Los Angeles' Dream Resource Center. "But the reality is, myself, my parents, those in my community who are in this situation of not having papers - all we want is to contribute back into this country, to be accepted and welcomed."

Instead of using "undocumented immigrant" or an alternative descriptor like "unauthorized," the new AP stylebook entry recommends avoiding that sentence construction altogether.

It's incorrect to describe a person as illegal, even if he or she has committed an illegal act, said Michael Oreskes, AP senior managing editor.

Thus, "illegal immigration" is acceptable while "illegal immigrant" is not. "Undocumented" was rejected because people may have documents, just not the right ones.

"It's lazy to label people. It's better to describe them," Oreskes said.

The change was part of a routine stylebook update, he said.

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