Big news: AP drops use of the i-word

Children of Immigrants

The Associated Press announced today that it no longer reccommends the use of the term “illegal immigrant,” or the “i-word” by news reporters and editors who abide by its AP Stylebook.

This is big news for immigration advocates and new Americans, who have for years been campaigning the AP and reporters to end use of the inaccurate and dehumanizing term that can make coverage of immigration issues unfair and biased. The changes in the AP Stylebook will likely mean many news organizations will discontinue using the term as the newswriting guide is the industry standard.

Children of immigrants are the fastest growing segment of the U.S. child population and represent one quarter of all children in the country. In an August blog post, First Focus’s Wendy Cervantes wrote about a Center for American Progress report on the detrimental impact of federal and state immigration enforcement policies on children and families. The report found that children were absorbing the use of the i-word, causing confusion and fear:

“Yet perhaps one of the report’s most troubling findings is that many of the children interviewed understood the term “immigrant” to be something negative and equivalent to “illegal.” As a daughter of Mexican immigrants, I find the growing trend of shame and fear among children in immigrant families very upsetting. I know the power of words all too well. When I was growing up I also struggled with fitting in and feeling accepted, and I recall wishing that my family was just “normal.” I grew up in a Midwestern city with very few immigrants, and I was the only kid in class whose parents spoke Spanish at home and whose father had something called a “resident alien card.” I can vividly remember how distressed I was at the age of 5 to think that my father was an alien and how my poor mother spent several hours trying to explain that the term simply meant that they were from another country not another planet. So while I did at one point worry whether or not my family was completely human, I never once thought that we were somehow “illegal” or had reason to be afraid of the police.”

No child or person is illegal, and immigration often does not violate any laws. Our Kevin Lindsey notes that overstaying a visa does not break any criminal law, and the mere presence of undocumented immigrants in this country is not illegal. And while crossing the border without an official inspection is a federal misdemeanor, “illegal” often fails to accurately describe this complex situation, especially for DREAMers who are eligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

So why did many of our countries most respected sources continue to use the slur? The answer is political. Anti-immigration groups in the U.S. first began using the term to encourage division. But it was well-known political strategists, such as Frank Luntz and Drew Westen, that introduced the i-word to politicians and mainstream media.

Colorlines, an online magazine about race, culture, and organizing, began a Drop The I-Word campaign urging advocate and members of the media to sign a pledge to discontinue its use. And now three years later, advocates have won this major victory.

According to AP Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll in the AP blog: “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 styleguide has updated its old “illegal immigrant” entry to “illegal immigration,” and provides additional critical context on immigration and the DACA program:

illegal immigration Entering or residing in a country in violation of civil or criminal law. Except in direct quotes essential to the story, use illegal only to refer to an action, not a person: illegal immigration, but not illegal immigrant. Acceptable variations include living inor entering a country illegally or without legal permission.

Except in direct quotations, do not use the terms illegal alien, an illegal, illegals or undocumented.

Do not describe people as violating immigration laws without attribution.

Specify wherever possible how someone entered the country illegally and from where. Crossed the border? Overstayed a visa? What nationality?

People who were brought into the country as children should not be described as having immigrated illegally. For people granted a temporary right to remain in the U.S. under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, use temporary resident status, with details on the program lower in the story.”

Ending the use of the i-word is a big step forward for common sense policy solutions that benefit children of immigrants and their families. As our nation’s leaders move forward with the important task of reforming the federal immigration system it is critical that they consider the specific needs of children and youth. Read the principles for children in immigration reform, developed by First Focus and the Women’s Refugee Commission, to learn more.