‘Illegal,’ ‘undocumented,’ or something else? No clear consensus yet

Newsrooms covering immigration move away from the "I-word," but AP style change hasn't settled debate

As style manual changes go, it was big news. “Illegal immigrant,” a phrase long used for people living in the country without authorization, was no longer “sanctioned” in Associated Press copy, the wire service declared in April 2013. Its influential Stylebook was updated to read, in part:

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.

The change was part of a broader effort to avoid “labeling people,” said Kathleen Carroll, AP’s executive editor, but the move seemed clearly a concession to advocates for immigrants who argued it was offensive to describe a person or group of people as “illegal.”

Within weeks, major newspapers like the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, and USA Today followed AP’s lead and abandoned the phrase, and it seemed likely more would follow. The Stylebook “is the last word on journalistic practice, so it’s particularly important for the AP to set this standard,” Rinku Sen, publisher of the website Colorlines, which had coordinated a campaign to “Drop the I-Word,” said at the time. “This should put the debate to rest.” A columnist at the Los Angeles Times chimed in: “For U.S. reporters and editors, the term ‘illegal immigrant’ looks to be going the way of the eight-track tape.”

But things haven’t quite worked out that way—not yet, at least. As Fusion noted recently, at least two elite media outlets, Reuters and The Wall Street Journal, still prefer “illegal immigrant.” Many others encourage or permit alternatives but haven’t banned the term, as a quick Google search will show. A recent Washington Post article, for example, used the term in its headline and lead.

“Illegal immigrant” also continues to crop up even in AP copy, despite the directive. “Alas, we are not perfect,” said Paul Colford, an AP spokesman. Asked about a couple of these stories, he described them as “lapses from AP style.”

And while AP guidelines are often considered the default style for smaller publications, there’s plenty of variation in how local outlets approach the “I-word” and other options, too. Queries by CJR to a handful of newsrooms around the country found that, as you’d expect, local journalists have been debating the issue, and many are indeed moving away from “illegal.” But policy and practice differs within chains, within publications, and occasionally even in a given web page.

Meanwhile, strict compliance with AP style—which proscribes not just “illegal immigrant” but also the most common alternative, “undocumented,” in its effort to avoid labels—is not easy to find. Labels turn out to be convenient things for journalists.

‘Local autonomy’ on a sensitive style choice

USA Today, the flagship Gannett paper, parted from AP and decreed that “undocumented” and “unauthorized” were permitted terms when it made its own style change. But that’s not chain-wide policy. Allowing “local autonomy on matters of sensitivity in the communities we serve has always been our practice,” said spokesman Jeremy Gaines.

For Gannett’s Des Moines Register, there’s no official policy, said Amalie Nash, the paper’s editor. But, following “meetings with folks in the immigration community and internal conversations,” the paper settled on “undocumented” or “unauthorized.” At another Gannett paper, The Citizen-Times of Asheville, NC, reporter and columnist John Boyle also went with “undocumented immigrants” in a couple recent pieces—following AP’s ban on “illegal,” if not its no-labels stance. But a Citizen-Times editorial in the same week used “illegal immigrants.” “It’s an interesting topic,” Boyle said. “We tend to get criticism from all sides on this.”

At the Detroit Free Press, meanwhile, the online headline of an article last month referred to “Michigan’s 100,000 illegal immigrants”—though both the actual story and, curiously, the page URL used “undocumented.” But an article a week later in Gannett’s Tennessean was consistent: “illegal immigrants” all the way through. 

McClatchy’s Miami Herald also prefers “undocumented,” but with a twist: “Illegal immigrants” may be acceptable if it is not referring to an identifiable individual or group (as in, “stem the tide of illegal immigrants”). 

Elsewhere in Florida, the Scripps-owned Naples Daily News has settled on “undocumented,” too, said Brett Blackledge, the paper’s government and investigations editor. He explained: “The AP has rejected this, but other news organizations unsatisfied with the AP’s odd alternative—‘immigrants who live in the country illegally’—have established their own style. ‘Undocumented’ has its flaws, but it’s not a loaded word and distinguishes immigrants who do not have legal status from others.” 

‘Change has to reflect a strong cultural trend’

Perhaps it’s not surprising that “illegal immigrant” lingers even after the shift in AP style. The phase has advocates among journalists. Margaret Sullivan, the New York Times public editor, argued in its favor in 2012, writing that it was “clear and accurate,” while the alternatives were not.

And while the National Association of Hispanic Journalists has been urging reconsideration of the phrase since at least 2006, debates over shifting terms for social groups often move slowly. Though it is not a precise parallel, the shift from “Negro” to “black” took years longer at AP and the Times than in the pages of Ebony. The campaign to banish “midget” began gaining traction with the Americans with Disabilities Act, signed into law in 1990, said Gary Arnold, president of Little People of America. The Times style manual wasn’t updated until 2009. “I think the change has to reflect a strong cultural trend, and that takes time to build,” Arnold says.

For her part, Sen, the advocate, sees more work ahead—but she remains optimistic that “illegal immigrant” will fade from the news lexicon, as formulations like “illegal alien” or just “illegals” largely have. “Continuing to call out the usage as dehumanizing and imprecise is critical, especially at the local level,” she said. “Over time, I believe that outlets that continue to use it will become more and more isolated among journalists, and resistance will drop among most of the field.” 

Deron Lee, Corey Hutchins, Susannah Nesmith, and Anna Clark contributed reporting.

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Rui Kaneya is CJR's correspondent for Illinois and Indiana. A former investigations editor at The Chicago Reporter, Kaneya was a recipient of the Investigative Reporters and Editors Minority Fellowship and the Robert R. McCormick Tribune Minority Fellowship in Urban Journalism. He has received numerous journalism awards, among them the Watchdog Award for Excellence in Public Interest Reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists and the National Association of Black Journalists’ Salute to Excellence National Media Award. Follow him on Twitter @ruikaneya.