Immigration Reform 2013: AP Ban On "Illegal Immigrant" Is Absurd


Last week, one of the world’s biggest news organizations officially banned the phrase “illegal immigrants” from its stylebook.

In a blog post, Associated Press Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll explained:

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.

Is this the best way to describe someone in a country without permission? We believe that it is for now. We also believe more evolution is likely down the road.

Will the new guidance make it harder for writers? Perhaps just a bit at first. But while labels may be more facile, they are not accurate.

I suspect now we will hear from some language lovers who will find other labels in the AP Stylebook. We welcome that engagement.


The new AP policy notes that “illegal” refers to the action, not the person. “Acceptable variations include living in or entering a country illegally or without legal permission,” the AP wrote. “Except in direct quotations, do not use the terms ‘illegal alien,’ ‘an illegal,’ ‘illegals’ or ‘undocumented.’”

Some immigration reform activists believe the terms unfairly “demonize” illegal immigrants, even going so far as claiming they’re “offensive,” though they are still commonly used by many other news organizations. They cheered AP’s move and demanded other news organization take similar action.

We’re not talking about racial, homophobic or sexist slurs here. We’re now crossing the line into the sensitivity of those who break the law.

If there’s anything George Orwell’s 1984 taught us, it’s that arguments are won and lost by controlling language. The more terminology you “ban,” the more you stack the deck in your favor and establish legitimacy.

Now I know it’s nice to say that “no human being is illegal” and apparently we care more about not hurting people’s feelings today than solving our problems, but as long as we’re going to ban words about those who break the law, I’d like to add some more banned terminology to the list.

From now on, we can no longer say “drug dealers.” We must now use the more politically correct term: unlicensed pharmacists.

We can no longer say “shoplifters,” we must now say: nonpaying customers.

It’s insensitive to say “robbers” or “muggers,” we must now identify them as community wealth redistributors.

Those who commit fraud and identity theft are cyber security job creators.

People who run Ponzi schemes and money laundering are now undocumented bankers.

See how ridiculous it sounds?

Before anyone overreacts, know that I firmly support comprehensive immigration reform. I’m fully aware of how unrealistic and impractical it is to believe we’re going to “round them all up and kick them all out.” No one is going to “self deport,” no one is going to turn their relatives in, and it’s within everyone’s interest to get illegal immigrants documented, working and paying taxes.

I’m also fully aware that many of these illegal immigrants are breaking the law so they can work, as opposed to all those other crimes I listed of people breaking the law so they don’t have to work.

But this effort to ban phrases and trying to win the arguments through controlling language is cheap and pathetic. Let’s try to build support through better reasoning, logic, and facts – not through Newspeak.