The official AP Stylebook, one of journalism’s sacred texts, announced today that it will no longer condone use of the term “illegal” to describe a human being: “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,” the new entry says. Illegal alien, an illegal, illegals, and undocumented are out as well.
“I can’t believe this is happening,” reporter and activist Jose Antonio Vargas told Daily Intelligencer excitedly this afternoon. “It was inevitable. It was just a matter of time.” Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize winner who outed himself as undocumented (his term of choice), challenged news outlets directly last year to change their policies, citing the AP and New York Times as his “main targets.”
“Who’s next?” Vargas, the founder of Define American, asked today. “When are the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, House Speaker Boehner, every politician out there going to realize that this is not only about immigration and Latinos, it’s about being a human being in general.” Vargas added that the AP Stylebook was his “other bible,” and said once the AP takes action “the dominoes will start falling.”
The AP recently announced it would use husband and wife for gay couples, moving with the public tide on another hot-button issue.
After Vargas’s request, Times public editor Margaret Sullivan, who does not control style decisions, argued that readers would not benefit from a change in the terminology. “It is clear and accurate; it gets its job done in two words that are easily understood,” she wrote. “The same cannot be said of the most frequently suggested alternatives.” (The same debate is currently raging among politicians.)
But Vargas said that the semantics affect the issue in an intangible sense. “The fact that we call people illegal has not only oversimplified the complex issue of immigration,” he said, “but it’s prevented us as a country from having an honest, real conversation.”
Update: In a new post, Sullivan at the Times writes that the paper, ” for the past couple of months, has also been considering changes to its stylebook entry on this term and will probably announce them to staff members this week,” but warns, “From what I can gather, The Times’s changes will not be nearly as sweeping as The A.P.’s.” Illegal probably won’t be banned, but there will be “more nuance and options,” according to standards editor Philip Corbett.
Personally, Sullivan adds, her position on the term "has changed over the past several months."