Out With The Illegal Immigrants

Well, the terminology anyway:

AP Stylebook editors sat down with a number of groups who were concerned about their entry on the the term in recent years and “sought the views of a cross section of AP staffers” on the issue, according to Colford.

Kathleen Carroll also noted in the Tuesday blog post that the AP prefers to label “behavior” rather than “people,” writing that instead of using the term “schizophrenic,” the AP now prefers saying that one is “diagnosed with schizophrenia.”

“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,” Carroll wrote. “So we have.”

The schizophrenic example is interesting, because I am not sure how excited I am about that change. Using schizophrenic as an adjective and not a noun seems reasonable (“schizophrenic people/individuals/etc.” in place of “schizophrenics”) but a clunky three or four word description to convey meaning that can be more easily conveyed in fewer words is not really a step forward, in my view. But there is at least consistency here.

I wrote a while back about the terminology wars surrounding the issue of immigration, legal and otherwise. My main concern is not “political correctness” per se (though I still maintain that “undocumented immigrants” is excessively euphemistic). And my concern that some of this has the effect – maybe even the desire – to stifle not just words, but concepts. In this case, the important distinction between those immigrants that are here legally and those that are not. This is not a distinction we can wish away, even though I sometimes get the impression that the stronger advocates for immigration might prefer that we did.

This is mostly, though, about language. The conveyance of ideas. Making certain ideas more difficult or less difficult to convey without terminology deemed offensive. I share Kevin Drum’s annoyance that no direct substitute is suggested (and indeed, substitution is discouraged):

Illegal immigrant is now out.

But I do still have a problem. AP apparently now feels that there’s no acceptable way to refer to people who are in the country illegally. Neither “undocumented immigrant” nor “unauthorized immigrant,” is acceptable, and neither is anything else. Labels are flatly not allowed, despite the fact that we label people all the time. Kevin Drum is a blogger. Barack Obama is a politician. Etc.

This leaves us with constructions like “John Doe is a person who immigrated to the United States illegally.” Or: “A bill pending in Congress would bar immigrants who are in the country illegally from receiving Medicaid.” Clunkiness aside, I guess we can all get used to that, but I’m not sure how it especially serves the cause of accuracy.

I previously had an issue with what to refer to anti-(illegal)immigrants. They were not wrong to point out that “anti-immigrant” is not exactly fair, because they could well support legal immigrants and more of them (though, to be truthful, this is not my experience). But anti-illegal immigrant also struck me as having accuracy problems because it’s clunky and in my experience not particularly accurate. I’ve settled on “border hawks” which nobody has taken me to task on. It’s nicer than saying “the moat and poison dart crowd.”

In any event, I will try to move away from “illegal immigrant” in the future. As mentioned, I’m not sure about “undocumented immigrant” and will definitely not be moving to elongate references to three or more words. I’ve seen “unauthorized immigrant” which works for me.

Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.


  1. Unauthorized immigrant? That’s better than illegal — which connotes evildoer.
    I don’t mind undocumented, either, because… well, when you see people hiding in the back of a van, in fear of being killed by folks from their home country. Yup, undocumented makes sense.

      • I practice immigration law for a living. “Undocumented alien” is the preferred term in the immigration lawyer and immigrant advocate communities.

    • Unauthorized alien has a nice ring to it. And also seems to do the best job of accurately describing the status of most aliens. Crossing into the country is a civil offense (at least the first time), and they are not authorized to do so.

  2. In any event, I will try to move away from “illegal immigrant” in the future.

    What, you’re afraid he’s going to get drunk on tequila and trash your porch? From the part of the post I skipped over, I assume he’s a nice fellow despite your personal history with him, so you shouldn’t have to refer to him as “illegal immigrant” in scare quotes, like he’s listening from across your fence. Try calling him Jose (They’re all named that), invite him over for BBQ, and see if he’ll give you a good deal on mowing your lawn.

    ^_^. Yeah, I just had to go there!

    Anyway, I’m reminded of a comedian who commented on all the upset over the self-appointed Minute Men who volunteered to watch our Southern border, ending with “Shouldn’t we call them undocumented border patrol agents?”

    People who practice journalism (previously called “journalists”) should learn to think and write clearly. If they wanted to tap dance they should’ve majored in theater.

  3. In theory, I agree; it’s better to describe people’s actions then to call people names.

    One subset of people living in the US who don’t have permission to live here and aren’t citizens are people brought here as children; they didn’t break the law, their parents did.


    I like that name. The rest need some work.

  4. It seems to me that this ties in nicely with Chris’s recent guest post about labeling and how it tends to colour our judgement of people when we drop them into a specific category (I’m totally butchering how Chris wrote it, but hopefully I’m close enough).

    It’s better to denigrate actions rather than people. When we do the latter, we keep them in camps and force them to where pink jumpsuits as a point of ridicule.

  5. If you’re taking exception to “illegal” then why not immigrant? Some of these guys are essentially “guest workers” here for a season and gone or for a few years. How far down the rat hole do you want to go? Oh, just enough to remove any stigma or to obfuscate the situation?

    We don’t call cocaine an “unapproved stimulant”, we call it an illegal drug.

    They aren’t undocumented workers, they have plenty of documents: ID from their home country, fake US documents, in some cases real US driver’s licenses, etc. Sorry, it’s a crime to cross the border without the correct documents / permissions.

    I’ll call them illegals or illegal immigrants. That’s what they are.

      • Good for you. Maybe it will catch on and eventually get legalized!

        • It’ll be a snow day in hell before it’s a “snow day” here.

    • Some fields refer to cocaine and other drugs as “substances”. Decided “drug abuse” was too prejudicial a term, moved to “drug use” and from there to “substance use”. Which, regardless of your view on drugs, is idiotic because “substance use” can cover anything from eating to home maintenance to using cocaine.

      Going in the other direction and changing it to “[illegal] drug use” (as an acknowledgement that there are many legal substances that qualify as drugs that people use regularly) would have made a lot more sense and left us with a term that actually means something.

      (On the main topic of this post, I think “unauthorized immigrant” is a fine term.)

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