Associated Press Issues Misleading Defense of Term “Illegal Immigrant”

Unlike lawyers and policymakers, journalists have an obligation to use language that ordinary people understand. Although the practice is generally helpful, it can sometimes result in oversimplification, or sacrificing accuracy for the sake of supposed clarity. A perfect example is the memo issued by the Associated Press last week endorsing use of the term “illegal immigrant.”

At first glance, the memo—authored by Tom Kent, a high-ranking AP editor—appears driven by a dispassionate analysis of immigration law. To Kent, terms like “unauthorized” and “undocumented” obscure what he calls a “legal reality,” i.e., that certain immigrants are present in the United States in violation of law. Without “the fundamental right to be in the United States,” the memo says, “their presence is illegal.”

In truth, immigration law is much more complicated than Kent suggests. Just as suspected criminals are presumed innocent until proven guilty (and thus referred to as “alleged” or “accused”), noncitizens charged with violating the immigration laws have a right to remain in the country until they receive a final order of removal. Last year, judges terminated more than 25,000 removal proceedings for lack of sufficient evidence, and granted relief from removal—such as asylum—in more than 30,000 cases. Thus, calling an immigrant “illegal” before the conclusion of  immigration proceedings is like calling a criminal defendant “guilty” before a jury has rendered a verdict.

As importantly, many immigrants are authorized to remain and work in the United States—and are not considered “unlawfully present” under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA)—despite being in violation of the immigration laws. For example, immigrants with pending applications for asylum and permanent residence are eligible for employment authorization, as are those granted deferred action or a stay of removal. Indeed, if determining unlawful presence was as simple as Kent suggests, it’s doubtful that federal officials would have felt compelled to issue such extensive guidance on the subject.

(Side note: the memo also misleadingly instructs reporters to describe beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program as having “temporary resident status,” a phrase the INA  uses in reference to farmworkers who qualified under a 1986 legalization program, and which implies that deferred action is akin to legal immigration status.)

To the AP’s credit, its stylebook instructs reporters not to refer to “illegals” or “illegal aliens,” and permits them to use more neutral descriptors, such as “living in the country without legal permission.” Kent’s memo also says certain noncitizens should not be described as “illegal immigrants”—such as youths brought to the country by their parents (because they did not consciously immigrate themselves) and those whose status is in current legal dispute—and encourages reporters to explain individual immigrants’ stories rather than rely on labels.

In making these (sensible) concessions, however, the memo undermines its very defense of the term in question. If a reporter’s job is to report facts objectively, it is hard to see why one should rely on a term that is often legally inaccurate, may encourage readers to make sweeping generalizations, and can offend the dignity of those they describe.

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  1. Valeria Bisignano says:

    A person can never be illegal. His or her actions or status may be, but not the person him/herself. We are all – legally – alive.

  2. magyart says:

    A resident is either LEGAL or ILLEGAL. It’s based on their conduct.

  3. figgie_ says:

    Undocumented immigrants are not undocumented either. In fact, they have loads of documents, many of them falsified. So what do we call these individuals?They broke the law. They should be called “allegedly illegal” or “here illegally” or “a person of illegal status.” Isn’t this the height of hypocritical political correctness?

  4. KAO says:

    Thank you. It appears that AP is taking sides politically. Whether AP realizes it or not, formal use of this phrase plays into the hands of the Federation for Immigration Reform’s (FAIR) political strategy. It’s a brillant use of words that encourages rational – racial division. Plausible deniability, but a real impact on real people – citizens and immigrants.

  5. Jeff Feinbloom says:

    Nice job, Ben. I hope you craft a formal letter to the AP on this issue.

    Also hope you approach the NYT and/or other influential media outlets with your strong refutation of John Yoo’s pathetic arguments that the DACA program is unconstitutional (although that could arguably prove counterproductive by generating more publicity for his shameless position).

  6. Fran says:

    Though the discussion focus on it it seems to be the term or label for these people, I believe it paints the picture of a broader issue. The lack of knowledge people have on immigration law as well as the lack of a much needed immigration reform

  7. Andrea says:

    I respect the opinions expressed here, but the article is correct, if incomplete. Not only is it true that you cannot call a person an “illegal” immigrant without first going to court to determine if the person has any legal claim to be here, but you cannot call a person an illegal “immigrant” without first determining whether the person has an intent to remain in the US. A person who has entered the US intending to be here for only a limited period of time is termed a “nonimmigrant” because they do not have the intent to “immigrate,” i.e. to remain in the US permanently or for an unlimited/undefined period of time. A person who enters without authorization with the intent to remain only a few months or a couple years and who has the definite intent to return to his home country and to maintain his home country as his permanent place of residence is not an “immigrant.” But most important is that you cannot call someone an “illegal” immigrant until you have determined that he has no legal claim to being here, just as you cannot call a person a “criminal” until he has been convicted of a crime.

    Where are the libel (and slander) attorneys when you need them?

  8. Bethany says:

    It’s not fair that some immigrants are being deemed ‘illegal’ even though their immigration proceedings have not come to a complete conclusion. I agree that this is just like calling a criminal guilty before they have been put on trail and the jury has given its verdict. Its not right to generalize immigrants as all being illegal without knowing the proper facts and its right in saying that people do not know or properly understand immigration and how it works thanks to the watered down version and words used in journalism nowadays. People are heavily influenced by what writers and reporters say in the media which is why many people brand immigrants as being illegal which is not right.

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