Immigration debate raises issue over ‘illegal’

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, referring only to the “I-word.”

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 a person’s immigration status.

The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, which have been discussing the question internally for months, 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 #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 and was not influenced by developments in Washington or the pleas of immigrant rights advocates, he said.

Rinku Sen of the Drop the I-Word campaign called the revision a “really high-leverage decision,” because most American newspapers follow AP style.

“The common usage of the I-word has become heavily racialized and targeted at people of color,” said Sen, president of the Applied Research Center think tank, which produced the campaign. “I have yet to meet a white immigrant dealing with having that word used against them.”

The Americans for Legal Immigration PAC, which supports deportation and opposes legalization, reacted to the AP’s decision by adopting a new term of its own: “illegal invader.” “Immigrant” should be reserved for people who came to this country legally, said William Gheen, the group’s president.

“It’s the most run-amok PC thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” Gheen said of abandoning the “illegal immigrant” usage. “It’s political correctness on steroids.”

At the Los Angeles Times, “illegal alien” was the preferred usage from 1979 until the newspaper’s style guide changed in 1995, said Henry Fuhrmann, the assistant managing editor in charge of copy desks.

Since then, writers have been directed to use “illegal immigrants” while avoiding “illegal aliens” and “illegals.”

The Times’ Standards and Practices Committee has been considering the issue since last fall and will soon make a recommendation to top editors, Fuhrmann said. Some writers have already been avoiding “illegal immigrant,” Fuhrmann said, just as “illegal alien” had fallen out of favor before the 1995 stylebook update.

New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan said in a blog post that the newspaper may announce a stylebook change this week but is unlikely to ban “illegal immigrant” altogether. The Los Angeles Times may also decide that a two-word shorthand, whether or not it contains “illegal,” is worth keeping.

“We appreciate that language evolves, culture evolves, our audience evolves, so we have to listen to them,” Fuhrmann said.

John Bridgeman, who emigrated from England three decades ago and lives in Monrovia, Calif., said he didn’t see a distinction between calling someone an “illegal immigrant” and saying that the person lives in the country illegally.

“It’s just a descriptor. It’s not offensive,” said Bridgeman, 70. “But then again, I’m not an illegal immigrant.”

Rocio Alvarez, who runs a Mexican food stand in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of L.A., has her papers now. But she knows what it feels like to be called an “illegal immigrant”; she lived in California illegally for four years. Though she doesn’t find the Spanish phrase “inmigrantes ilegales” wildly offensive, she avoids using it herself, preferring to say “people who aren’t in the country legally.”

“When people asked, I said I was illegal,” Alvarez, 44, said in Spanish. “It felt bad. It felt ugly saying it. But I used it because it’s what I’d heard. It’s what people understood.”

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