How Immigration Activists Convinced the AP That “Illegal” Was a Dirty Word

Immigrants on their way to the United States cross the Guatemala-Mexico border on a raft on the Suchiate river in 2011.

Photo by OSCAR RIVERA/AFP/Getty Images

With one long blog post, the Associated Press has pulled a Confucius and rectified the language. “Illegal immigrant,” seen for years as a good-enough neutral term for people living in America without legal citizenship, is now verboten.

illegal immigration Entering or residing in a country in violation of civil or criminal law. Except in direct quotes essential to the story, use illegal only to refer to an action, not a person: illegal immigration, but not illegal immigrant. Acceptable variations include living in or entering a country illegally or without legal permission.

This is a victory by activists who you may never have paid attention to. For more than two years, the writer and reporter Jose Antonio Vargas*—who discovered in his teenage years that he had come to the United States illegally from the Phillippines—has been on a crusade to literally “define ‘American.’” One of his slogans and causes was “no human being is illegal.” Poynter talked to the AP’s Kathleen Carroll, who denied that the campaign had any effect on the decision. But without calling her a liar, let’s just say her explanation doesn’t close that door.

It’s kind of a lazy device that those of use who type for a living can become overly reliant on as a shortcut. It ends up pigeonholing people or creating long descriptive titles where you use some main event in someone’s life to become the modifier before their name.

As Poynter points out, just months ago the AP was recommending “illegal” over “undocumented,” for reasons very similar to this. Why were they even discussing a terminology change? It’s pretty obvious that the pressure, over time, made “illegal” look loaded. Vargas certainly thinks so:

That was picked up by multiple reporters, some for outlets that don’t (or didn’t) take a stand on terminology:

*Disclosure: Vargas is a friend, and one of the nicest people I’ve met in a less-than-nice industry.