In the face of mounting pressure from activist campaigns like "Drop the I-Word," the Associated Press announced today that it would continue using the term "illegal immigrants" in its immigration coverage if and when the situation calls for it. Drop the I-Word and its proponents—like journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, himself an illegal immigrant—argue that media outlets using the word "illegal" to describe people is a "racially charged" tactic that "confuses the immigration debate and fuels violence." Critics would rather newspapers and wire services use terms like "undocumented immigrant" or "unauthorized immigrant," instead. Despite those protestations, however, the AP appears to be resolute in its decision.
In a press release published to its website, the AP's deputy managing editor for standards and production, Tom Kent, said that the wire service insists on using "illegal immigrant" because it is occasionally the most accurate phrasing.
Why not say "undocumented immigrants" or "unauthorized immigrants," as some advocates would have it?
To us, these terms obscure the essential fact that such people are here in violation of the law. It's simply a legal reality.
Terms like "undocumented" and "unauthorized" can make a person's illegal presence in the country appear to be a matter of minor paperwork. Many illegal immigrants aren't "undocumented" at all; they may have a birth certificate and passport from their home country, plus a U.S. driver's license, Social Security card or school ID. What they lack is the fundamental right to be in the United States.
Without that right, their presence is illegal. Some say the word is inaccurate, because depending on the situation, they may be violating only civil, not criminal law. But both are laws, and violating any law is an illegal act (we do not say "criminal immigrant").
Kent went on to clarify that the AP frowns on describing people as "illegal aliens" or "illegals," but that calling people illegal immigrants "simply means that a person is ... in violation of the law."
The AP's refusal to abandon "illegal" is the second big blow for the Drop the I-Word campaign this month. On October 2, New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan weighed in with her own piece saying that doing away with "illegal immigrant" would be a disservice to Times readers. "It is clear and accurate," she wrote. "[I]t gets its job done in two words that are easily understood. The same cannot be said of the most frequently suggested alternatives."
Though we here at Gawker aren't always inclined to agree with Sullivan, in this instance she's right. While terms like "illegal alien" are undoubtedly archaic and insensitive, "illegal immigrant" is nothing more than a statement of fact in a country currently doing a horrible job of putting together competent immigration policy. Disagree with the term? That's fine. But put your activist efforts into changing the laws that make some immigration illegal, not changing the language that straightforwardly acknowledges its illegality.
The video above is me debating this point with Drop the I-Word representative Monica Novoa in 2010.