Last week the Associated Press (AP) changed its style manual so that the term “Illegal” is to be used to describe an action or procedure, but not a person.  No more “illegal immigrant” in AP stories.

News organizations have debated the use of the term “illegal immigrant” before because it provokes such a strong negative reaction from many people.  “No person is illegal” has been a popular sign and bumper sticker since the push for immigration reform started in earnest in 2005.

The problem has been what to use instead?  Some prefer “undocumented immigrant” but this term provokes an equally negative reaction in others that say it is disingenuous and suggests that no law has been broken.  Still others have pushed for “unauthorized immigrant” as a compromise that refers to the administrative nature of most immigration rules.

AP came to its decision from a different angle.  After talking with advocates for those with mental illness, they learned that people preferred to be referred to as “diagnosed with schizophrenia” rather than “a schizophrenic”, for example.

Following this reasoning, they realized what immigration advocates had been saying:  Labeling people objectifies them.  We don’t care very much about objects (that don’t have feelings or relationships).  The genocide in Rwanda, for instance, gained momentum when members of one tribe starting publicly referring to members of the other as “cockroaches”.

“Illegal immigrant” is also less accurate.  For example, a news story about a person not legally present in the U.S. that is hoping the law will change and allow him to stay would invoke a different reaction if the person is a 20-year-old that has been here since he was 2 than if it was a 50-year-old that came here last year on a visitor visa and refused to leave.  Defaulting to the term “Illegal immigrant” does not tell the whole story.

The question for immigration reform is whether AP’s decision is a style change only, or if it signals (or will facilitate) a broader attitude change that will lead to honest debate and problem solving.  Here’s hoping.

Written by Lori Chesser, Vice Chair, USCIS Benefits Policy Liaison Committee