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Associated Press Article Shows Its Stylebook’s Extraordinary Ignorance of Immigration Law and Privilege

Tom Kent, Deputy Managing Editor for Standards and Production for the Associated Press, published an article titled “Reviewing the use of Illegal Immigrant.”

The problem with the “review” is that it is based on legal malarkey. Rather than point out detail by detail how Kent’s article demonstrates a reckless disregard for reasonably ascertainable facts on U.S. immigration law, I will provide Concrete examples below of how the AP has recently used the term “illegal immigrant.” in a way that contributes to the distinct danger of broad-brushing people and making incorrect assumptions

First, however, the meat of the AP article must be cited to:

But what about the cases where we do write “illegal immigrants”? 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.

Lest I be accused of selective citations, be sure to read this excerpt as well:

There are also cases where a person’s right to be in the country is currently in legal dispute; in such a case, we can’t yet say the person is here illegally.

Kasie Hunt of the AP wrote on October 1, 2012 an article with the headline: “Romney won’t revoke young illegal immigrant visas.”

Hunt uses the words young illegal immigrants 4 times in total, including the title.

On the same day, Don Thompson of the AP wrote an article with the headline: “Calif. gov. OKs bill on illegal immigrant licenses.”

In describing Deferred Action recipients, Thompson writes:  “Assemblyman Gil Cedillo will…let the Department of Motor Vehicles issue licenses to illegal immigrants eligible for work permits under a new Obama administration policy.”

In both articles, the AP’s use of the word “illegal” to describe the group of DACA immigrants is simply wrong as a matter of law.

A person granted Deferred Action is considered to be lawfully present in the United States. The government is aware of their presence and has affirmatively consented to their being present in the United States, notwithstanding the fact that they do not have lawful status (i.e. like a green card, or a non immigrant visa.)

Ironically, the use of illegal in these examples is more inaccurate than the use of undocumented of unauthorized that according to the AP purportedly obscures the essential fact that such people are here in violation of the law.

The central problem with Kent’s reasoning is that given the complexity of immigration law, it is impossible for journalists to use of the word “illegal” to describe an immigrant without broad-brushing people and making incorrect assumptions.


On October 21, 2011, the AP published an article titled “El Salvador asking US to extend migrant program.” In the article, the author writes:

“El Salvador’s president says he will ask Washington to halt deportations of Salvadorans and extend a program that allows those who are in the U.S. illegally to stay.

Persons who have Temporary Protected Status are considered to be lawfully present in the United States and, according to INA 244(f)(4), are also “considered as being in, and maintaining, lawful status as a nonimmigrant.” for purposes of adjustment of status.  Yet the AP incorrectly stated that Salvadorans with TPS are in the U.S. illegally.

On August 18, 2011, Alicia Caldwell of the AP wrote an article titled: “Many undocumented immigrants without criminal records facing deportation will stay in U.S.”

The words “illegal immigrants” are used 7 times. The author writes:

“That will mean a case-by-case review of approximately 300,000 illegal immigrants facing possible deportation in federal immigration courts, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said in announcing the policy change.”

The author uses illegal immigrant, again, in a different context:

“The indefinite stay will not give illegal immigrants a path to legal permanent residency, but will let them apply for a work permit.”

The use of “illegal immigrant” in the first quote directly contradicts the AP’s stylebook on not being able to use “illegal” to describe cases where a person’s right to be in the United States is currently in dispute. All 300,000 of those people cannot be called, according to the AP, “illegal immigrants”, because they are in immigration court and their right to be in the United Stats is currently in dispute.

The second quote is inaccurate because persons granted prosecutorial discretion are considered to be “lawfully present” in the United States, much like Deferred Action recipients and therefore  cannot accurately be called illegal.

These examples show how it is impossible to employ the word “illegal” to describe certain immigrants without risking the broad-brushing people and making incorrect assumptions.


Apart from the many legal errors that Kent’s article contains, there are other disturbing aspects of Kent’s justification of the use of the word “illegal.”

Kent acknowledges that there is a concern that the word “illegal immigrant” offends a person’s dignity by suggesting his very existence is illegal but states that it is not a concern because the journalists at the AP don’t read the term this way. He then goes on to describe other ways in which illegal was used to describe loggers, miners, and illegal vendors.

 As Rey Lopez-Calderon points out, Kent’s logic would mean that the AP must start using the word “Homo” instead of “Gay” to describe members of the LGBT community because it is our job to use plain, clear language that the general public can understand. ( neither gay nor homo can be used to describe Trans women and men)

Part of the reason the AP and other outlets are so insistent on using “illegal immigrant” is because they are privileged and  cannot adequately empathize with the “illegal immigrants” they write about. After all, it is likely that many more journalists are gay than unlawfully present immigrants are journalists.

Make no mistake about it: a big part of this is about the powerful and the powerless.  The New York Times and others did not permit the use of the word “gay” to describe homosexuals until 1987 when they were forced to by GLAAD.

In fact, the AP, New York Times, and Washington Post’s justification for using the term “gay” over “homosexual” is because certain gays convinced them that homosexual was a slur.

Given the above, the continued use of the word illegal to describe certain immigrants is wrong on several levels and must be ceased immediately.

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