shutterstock_52513291On Tuesday, the Associated Press (AP) posted a blog saying that they are no longer going to advise writers to use the term “illegal immigrant” in the stylebook.  The AP stylebook is considered the standard among American journalists, so the change is likely lead to a marked drop in the use of the controversial term over time. On Wednesday, as responses to the AP’s decision were still coming in, the New York Times blogged that they, too, are reconsidering the use of the term, though the Times’ public editor Margaret Sullivan said she did not expect them  to completely “ban the use of “illegal immigrant,” as The A.P. has done.”

Interestingly, the AP’s reasoning behind dropping the I-word had nothing to do with the fact that nearly half of Latinos consider the label to be offensive, or that it is not a neutral journalistic term, or that it is not (as we have argued) legally accurate or precise.  The change, the AP said, was part of a much larger effort to purge their stylebook of labels.  The AP’s Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll, who wrote the statement, compared the change to what they’ve recently been doing with labels in mental health:  “The new section on mental health issues argues for using credibly sourced diagnoses instead of labels. Saying someone was ‘diagnosed with schizophrenia’ instead of schizophrenic, for example.”

Carroll argues that the change in usage of the term “illegal immigrant” was done primarily to remain consistent throughout the Stylebook. “’Illegal’ should describe only an action, such as living in or immigrating to a country illegally.”  The stylebook will now read, “Except in direct quotations, do not use the terms illegal alien, an illegal, illegals or undocumented.”  The AP has previously argued that “undocumented,” the most widely preferred alternative, is imprecise, which is why it should also not be used.

Margaret Sullivan explained that the Times, on the other hand, was unlikely to prohibit the use of the word, but would likely attempt to provide more alternatives.  She said in her blog post that she personally no longer favored “illegal immigrant” because “so many people find it offensive to refer to a person with an adjective like ‘illegal.’”

The move has been widely praised by immigration advocates who have long argued that the term is dehumanizing to those it attempts to describe, and that as such, it is a slur. However, some restrictionists have decried the move as “politically correct” and as an attempt to influence the upcoming immigration bill.

Whatever the reasoning, having two of the most influential journalistic institutions in the country back away from these terms is a major step forward.  Language matters in public policy debates, and choosing words that criminalize vast swaths of the American population, who largely have been convicted of no crime, does nothing to help move the issue forward.  The AP’s move brings much-needed accuracy to an often contentious, rhetorical debate.