Group asks AP to stop using ‘illegal’ label

Pressure is mounting on the Associated Press to stop using the term “illegal immigrant” in the widely followed AP Stylebook.

By Bob Allen

A Christian social-justice organization has called on the Associated Press to stop labeling undocumented immigrants “illegal” in the Associated Press Stylebook, a Bible for reporting and editing decisions used by news media across the United States.

Sojourners, a progressive faith-based organization founded by author and social theologian Jim Wallis, urged members in an e-mail Oct. 10 to petition the Associated Press about changing the current stylebook’s advice that “illegal immigrant” is an acceptable term for describing people living in the U.S. without documentation.

“The word ‘illegal’ is a dehumanizing term that robs people of their God-given dignity and prejudices readers against the needs and concerns of our immigrant brothers and sisters,” the Sojourners immigration team said in the e-mail. “Ending the use of this controversial word by the media would create a more compassionate and accurate conversation about immigration.”

One of the world’s most trusted and influential news organizations, the Associated Press serves about 1,400 U.S. daily newspapers and thousands of television and radio broadcast stations. Subscribers and other journalists rely on the AP Stylebook to establish consistency of style between wire stories and local reporting throughout their publications.

“When reporters from newspapers and TV stations across the country and around the globe write their stories, they follow the AP Stylebook,” Sojourners said. “It is the authoritative guide for everything from punctuation to word choice.”

“As people of faith we believe that each person is created in God's image, and the dignity of all people must be protected,” the e-mail continued. “Language is a powerful tool that is never neutral. Descriptions shape perceptions. Words are used to persuade.”

The AP Stylebook has long used the term “illegal immigrant,” but pressure is mounting to change the practice.

A New York Times article in June 2011 by former Washington Post reporter Jose Antonio Vargas described the challenges of growing up in the U.S. without a green card after his mother sent him to live with his grandparents in America after a divorce in order to give him an opportunity for a better life.

In the keynote address at the recent 2012 Online News Association Conference in San Francisco, Vargas challenged news organizations to stop using the term "illegal immigrant," starting with the Associated Press and The New York Times.

Paul Colford, director of media relations for the Associated Press, responded in an e-mail to Politico that “illegal immigrant” had been the preferred term at AP, but it ceased being the preferred term last year.

“Though the term is in the AP Stylebook because it reflects a legal reality, we believe there are alternatives,” Colford said. “AP reporters understand that it’s not the only way to refer to individuals in a host of different circumstances.

“In the case of a person brought here as a child without permission, the term can be misleading, since the person wasn’t a willing ‘immigrant’ at all. In such a case, AP reporters might simply state the situation: He doesn’t have legal permission to live in the United States, since his parents entered the country illegally (or without authorization).”

Sojourners said the media is too often a part of the problem when it comes to changing the national debate on immigration.

“Following the standards set by the Associated Press Stylebook, journalists label undocumented immigrants as ‘illegal,’” Sojourners said.

“It is a small change that could make a huge difference,” Sojourners supporters were advised. “You can help make that happen.”