'Illegal Immigrant': Dehumanizing to Some, But Not to the AP

PHOTO: SecureTed Hesson/Long Island Wins
An activist at a June 26 press conference about the immigration enforcement program Secure Communities in Hempstead, N.Y.

The Associated Press will continue using the phrase "illegal immigrant," according to a staff memo released publicly this morning.

Calls for the wire service to drop "illegal immigrant" led to a review by Tom Kent, the AP's deputy managing editor for standards and production.

In the memo, Kent dismisses one of the central concerns regarding the term: that it's dehumanizing.

"Finally, there's the concern that 'illegal immigrant' offends a person's dignity by suggesting his very existence is illegal," Kent writes. "We don't read the term this way. We refer routinely to illegal loggers, illegal miners, illegal vendors and so forth."

In a series of articles, ABC/Univision has examined why outlets like the AP and The New York Times should drop the term, looking at Latino representation in newsrooms and asking undocumented immigrants firsthand about their preference. The AP memo doesn't touch on the broader defining impact many people, like linguists, believe the term has.

Despite reaffirming the news agency's commitment to "illegal immigrant," the standards editor took the opportunity to clarify the language that reporters should use when covering immigration.

"The discussion has also reinforced for us the importance of reporting clearly and precisely about this sensitive subject, where there is a distinct danger of broad-brushing people and making incorrect assumptions," Kent wrote.

The memo stressed that reporters also have the option to use "living in the country without legal permission" when describing a person's immigration status, and should seek to be specific whenever possible.

"Don't lump together in stories and scripts people who entered the country illegally as adults, and young people who were brought in as children and have spent most of their lives in the country," Kent wrote. "People have their own stories; respect that."

Kent did acknowledge an exception to the AP's use of "illegal immigrant." Since President Barack Obama's deferred action program allows young undocumented immigrants to live and work in the U.S., the wire service now recognizes "temporary resident status" as a descriptor for program recipients.

The comparison to illegal loggers, miners, and vendors isn't really equivalent. A news archive search for "illegal immigrant" and "AP" during the past year found more than 3,000 entries -- the max limit for search results. A search for "AP" with "illegal logger" returned 69 entries, with "illegal miner" returned nine entries, and with "illegal vendor" returned two entries.