Napolitano: No AP, they are still 'illegal immigrants'

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Politics,Paul Bedard,Washington Secrets,Politics Digest

The speech police at the Associated Press are stirring up another major storm over a change to their story style.

Just one month after they barred the word "sequester" during the heated sequester debate, the AP is banning use of the phrase "illegal immigrant" just as the immigration debate is heating up.

"AP Style tip: @AP no longer sanctions the term 'illegal immigrant,' " the news service tweeted on Tuesday.

But don't expect many officials, even Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, to stop calling them what they are.

At a breakfast with reporters last week, she brushed aside concerns that the term is racist. "I don't really get caught up in the vocabulary wars. They are immigrants who are here illegally. It's an illegal immigrant," she said. "They are immigrants who are here without documents. That's an undocumented immigrant," she added.

Describing the change on the AP site, Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll said, "The Stylebook no longer sanctions the term 'illegal immigrant' or the use of 'illegal' to describe a person. Instead, it tells users that 'illegal' should describe only an action, such as living in or immigrating to a country illegally."

The change was prompted when the AP rewrite the mental health part of their fabled stylebook, she said. "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. And that discussion about labeling people, instead of behavior, led us back to 'illegal immigrant' again. We concluded that to be consistent, we needed to change our guidance."

Many of those involved in the debate are unlikely to change how they refer to illegal immigrants.

Carroll's full note is below:

The Associated Press announced this Stylebook change on Tuesday afternoon:

AP release

"Illegal immigrant" no more

The AP Stylebook today is making some changes in how we describe people living in a country illegally.

Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll explains the thinking behind the decision:

The Stylebook no longer sanctions the term "illegal immigrant" or the use of "illegal" to describe a person. Instead, it tells users that "illegal" should describe only an action, such as living in or immigrating to a country illegally.

Why did we make the change?

The discussions on this topic have been wide-ranging and include many people from many walks of life. (Earlier, they led us to reject descriptions such as "undocumented," despite ardent support from some quarters, because it is not precise. A person may have plenty of documents, just not the ones required for legal residence.)

Those discussions continued even after AP affirmed "illegal immigrant" as the best use, for two reasons.

A number of people felt that "illegal immigrant" was the best choice at the time. They also believed the always-evolving English language might soon yield a different choice and we should stay in the conversation.

Also, we had in other areas been ridding the Stylebook of labels. 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.

And that discussion about labeling people, instead of behavior, led us back to "illegal immigrant" again.

We concluded that to be consistent, we needed to change our guidance.

So we have.

Is this the best way to describe someone in a country without permission? We believe that it is for now. We also believe more evolution is likely down the road.

Will the new guidance make it harder for writers? Perhaps just a bit at first. But while labels may be more facile, they are not accurate.

I suspect now we will hear from some language lovers who will find other labels in the AP Stylebook. We welcome that engagement. Get in touch at stylebook@ap.org or, if you are an AP Stylebook Online subscriber, through the "Ask the Editor" page.

Change is a part of AP Style because the English language is constantly evolving, enriched by new words, phrases and uses. Our goal always is to use the most precise and accurate words so that the meaning is clear to any reader anywhere.