The “illegal immigrant” debate and more

Words mean things, at least that’s what I  tell my students. And my daughters, and my co-workers. How we choose to say what we say, says plenty about our priorities and values.

So last week we read almost parenthetically how several years ago The Associated Press made a dramatic change to its stylebook, redefining for all the news services  that follow it the nature of immigration in America. No longer would the AP use the term “illegal immigrant,” preferring instead some hybrid of “person living in the country without proper documentation” or “legal permission.”

Quite a politically correct mouthful, yes? Well, no, not really.

I can’t describe the chaos that ensued as newsrooms across the country scrambled to find a suitable language alternative, including the calamity at Newsday, where we in NYC confront this issue almost as much as they do on the southern border.

I get the AP’s point and, in fact, remember defending it at the time. By definition, people cannot be “illegal,” only actions, so why refer to people as such? Yet to me it remains one of the mysteries of the English language that we have not come up with better words to define “those who live here in violation of the law.”

The quotes above are intentional since that is the  phrase Newsday settled on to describe this group and their circumstances. It makes for clunky writing, but if we are to remain consistent in our commitment to journalistic equity, it’s probably the best description. And kudos for not just accepting use of the equally overused “undocumented,” since that conjurs up images of totalitarianism no American ought to feel comfortable with. (And it might not be accurate in all cases anyway.)

As a watchdog for all media, the AP has done a wonderful job of ridding its stylebook of labels such as “schizophrenic” “mentally ill,” “cancer-stricken” and the like, preferring the more authentic “person afllicted with schizophrenia” etc.

In this sweeping gesture, the AP pushed media forward. Let’s hope we as media leaders can push society along as well.


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