On Tuesday, the Associated Press announced that it would no longer sanction the use of the words “illegal immigrant” in its news reports. This comes after rights groups pointed out that the common label is offensive to workers and others in this country whose guilt can be determined only by the courts — not by reporters and editors. It is an interesting shift wherever one stands on the issue of immigration, and it could herald a change in public opinion.
The A.P. announcement took the form of an addendum to its “Stylebook,” which serves as a linguistic guide not only for its wire reports but for countless English-language news organizations in the United States and abroad. The A.P. said “undocumented immigrants” is likewise to be avoided, because it is inherently imprecise. Many who are apparently in the United States illegally have papers, if not quite of the correct form or duration. These and other blanket labels would remain permissible in a direct quote, as in the Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano’s perhaps unfortunate statement, reported in several news outlets: “They are immigrants who are here illegally; that’s an illegal immigrant.” The New York Times, whose style book we follow at The Star, is expected to offer its opinion in the coming weeks.
Immigrants’ advocates and others, including the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, welcomed the announcement. Their view is that no human being is illegal, and that someone can only be found guilty of acting illegally through the workings of the legal system. They are no more or less “legal” than U.S. citizens who habitually cheat on taxes, for example.
There are an estimated 11 million people in the United States without official authorization. Figuring out what to call them other than the pejorative “illegal immigrant” or the more creepy-sounding phrase “illegal alien” will be a puzzle. The A.P. said that precision could help, for example, by writing that someone crossed the border illegally or overstayed a visa, or was born in the United States to parents here illegally.
Though a backlash from some of the darker corners of the talk-radio right is likely, the longer-term effect of this seemingly minor change could be significant. Foreign-born labor contributes hugely to the United States economy — and to the South Fork’s. Yet the same workers on which the country and our own community have come to depend are relegated to a worse-than-second-class legal netherworld, without wage or workplace protection. They are subjected to economic exploitation, dangerous living conditions, and are targeted by police out of proportion to their numbers.
Changing how we speak about this essential group — with whom most of us interact every day — could help lead to rational immigration reform, something blocked far too long by animus reflected in the very words we use to describe people who are, in the end, our friends, co-workers, and neighbors.