AP drops "illegal immigrant" from Stylebook

​By Zach Dyer

The Associated Press reversed its defense of the term “illegal immigrant” and dropped it from the AP Stylebook, according to the wire service’s blog on Tuesday, April 2.

AP Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll said on the blog:

“The Stylebook no longer sanctions the term ‘illegal immigrant’ or the use of ‘illegal’ to describe a person. Instead, it tells users that ‘illegal’ should describe only an action, such as living in or immigrating to a country illegally.”

The wire service said that the decision was part of a wider move away from labels in its writing. The post illustrated the point by explaining that under the new guidelines a mental health patient might be described as “‘diagnosed with schizophrenia’ instead of schizophrenic.”

“We concluded that to be consistent, we needed to change our guidance,” the post read.

According to a phone interview with Poynter, Carroll said activists did not influence their decision. Last fall statements from former Washington Post reporter and “undocumented” activist Jose Antonio Vargas and an open letter by Dr. Jonathan Rosa of the University of Massachusetts Amherst criticizing the AP’s 2011 Stylebook entry on the phrase re-ignited debate over its use.

In October 2012, AP argued against the use of alternatives like “undocumented” or “unauthorized,” saying that the issue did not address the “legal reality” that these groups were in the United States “in violation of the law.”

That same month, New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan wrote that the newspaper’s readers would not benefit from a change in their use of the phrase. Sullivan argued that the phrase was “clear and accurate; it gets its job done in two words that are easily understood.”

In an interview with the Knight Center conducted last fall, Dr. Rosa countered that if newspapers were concerned with neutrality and accuracy, the term was far from the mark. “For the AP to claim that it’s the most neutral term when conservative political operatives are promoting its usage is confounding, sort of baffling,” he said.

Rosa went on to say that Sullivan’s defense of the phrase as “easily understood” was pernicious: “The reason it’s concise is because of the stereotypes it reproduces.”

In her conversation with Poynter, Carroll admitted that the phrase’s use was “lazy.”

AP joins the Society of Professional JournalistsABC News/Univision and other journalism organizations in repudiating the controversial phrase.

The AP Stylebook’s new definition reads:

illegal immigration Entering or residing in a country in violation of civil or criminal law. 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.


Except in direct quotations, do not use the terms illegal alien, an illegal, illegals or undocumented.

Do not describe people as violating immigration laws without attribution.


Specify wherever possible how someone entered the country illegally and from where. Crossed the border? Overstayed a visa? What nationality?


People who were brought into the country as children should not be described as having immigrated illegally. For people granted a temporary right to remain in the U.S. under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, use temporary resident status, with details on the program lower in the story.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.