Deporting the 'I-Word'

April 10, 2013

As politicians and activists debate immigration reform, the Associated Press (AP) last week made an important decision regarding how to talk about the issue. The AP announced a change to their stylebook to exclude the term "illegal immigrant" (and the even more problematic shortened version of "illegal") unless it is in a direct quotation from someone interviewed or cited in the article. The stylebook not only directs how AP articles are written, but also influences the style of numerous other publications (since others look to the AP for guidance). Thus, this change will likely trickle down. Although an action can be described as "illegal" (such as being in the country illegally), people are not to be described as "illegal." The AP announcement explained:

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. ... 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. ... 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.
Amen! The AP decision is correct (and matches the decision previously made by other news outlets, including ABC, NBC, and CNN). The use of the word "illegal" is highly problematic. In some cases it is even completely inaccurate (such as a person who immigrated legally but overstayed their visa). Words are not neutral, which is why a group of linguists argued last year that journalists should stop using the "I-word" to talk about immigrants. Similarly, ethicist Robert Parham wrote an Ethics Daily column this week praising the AP decision and again urging church leaders to avoid the "I-word." Words are powerful and can shift public sentiment. A loaded or biased word can work to subtly push people in a specific direction before there is even a full discussion on policies. As the AP announcement noted, language is constantly changing and so we must pay attention to the impact of our words.

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