The ‘illegal immigrant’ usage explained

Language matters; nobody argues with that. But some words are automatic e-mail generators when they appear in news stories. The term “illegal immigrants” is one.

Today, MPR ran an Associated Press story — Bill: Instate tuition for illegal immigrants — that used the term three times, prompting this e-mail from a reader from Stillwater.

I am quite disappointed at MPR’s apparently intentional use of the quite derogatory term “Illegal Immigrant”. It’s the sort of thing that I would expect from FOX News, sorry to say. Is there just no thought given to word usage at MPR?

Yes, there is thought given to these things. In fact, a few years ago, the newsroom had several meetings with representatives of various organizations to discuss an acceptable term.

Here’s the Associated Press Stylebook ruling:

illegal immigrant Used to describe someone who has entered a country illegally or who resides in a country in violation of civil or criminal law. Acceptable variations include living in the country without legal permission. Use of these terms, as with any terms implying illegalities, must be based on reliable information about a person’s true status. Unless quoting someone, AP does not use the terms illegal alien, an illegal, illegals or the term undocumented.

And here’s the MPR News guide on the subject:

MPR’s policy is consistent with AP style: “Illegal immigrant” and “illegal immigration” remain acceptable terms for stories on immigration issues. “Illegals” is not acceptable. “Undocumented” is only acceptable when there is an actual and specific question about a person’s documents; it should not be used as a substitute adjective for “illegal.” “Alien” is not acceptable except when referencing specific legal language.

One point of clarification, however – while “illegal immigrant” is acceptable, it is not mandatory if there is an equally good alternative for conveying a person’s or group’s legal immigration status. For instance, it’s fine to say “John Doe crossed the border illegally” or “Jane Doe remained in the U.S. illegally after her temporary visa expired.” These types of constructions reflect our desire for active writing and they accurately convey immigration status, yet they avoid the “dehumanizing” aspect critics hear in the “illegal immigrant” label.

The term “illegal immigrant,” however, became a flashpoint after a Republican talking-points memo suggested using it.

NPR, too, has struggled with the term. Writing on his “It’s All Politics” blog, Gene Denby considered alternatives:

Jonathan Rosa, a linguistic anthropologist at the University of Massachusetts, told NPR that both phrases muddle the conversation about immigration reform.

‘Undocumented’ and ‘illegal’ seem to be signaling one’s stance when it comes to immigration reform than it is about characterizing the situation in a precise way,” Rosa said. He said the State Department’s definition of immigrant explicitly refers to lawful status, making the term “illegal immigrant” a contradiction. But undocumented immigrant doesn’t quite fit either because the term “makes it seem as though there’s [just been] an administrative mistake, as if a document wasn’t issued.”

Rosa said the fight over the terminology isn’t trivial, since the ways people use language can have social consequences. “It’s not simply a way of describing the world or representing the world; it’s a way of taking action in the world,” he said.

And in case you were wondering: Rosa says he uses the term “unauthorized migrant” in his academic writing. “A ‘migrant” is just someone who is moving across national borders,” he said. “It doesn’t make any presumptions about the legal status of people.”

But officially, the NPR policy, too, is to use “illegal immigrants.”

Update 2:19 p.m. This afternoon, the Associated Press announced a change in its policy, according to a blog post by Paul Colford at AP:

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 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.

Mr. Colford says this is the new entry in the Stylebook:

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 in or 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.