Why the AP’s Choice to Drop the I-Word Is a Crucial Victory
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…
Change is a part of AP Style because the English language is constantly evolving, enriched by new words, phrases and uses. Our goal always is to use the most precise and accurate words so that the meaning is clear to any reader anywhere.
The change reflects new practice in newsrooms across the nation, where editors have been replacing the word when they run AP stories on immigration.
This decision is a victory for immigrant communities. We took a word that has been normalized by anti-immigrant forces and revealed it as unfit to print because it is both inaccurate and dehumanizing. We startedDrop the I-Word in 2010 because we could see the harm that it was doing to our readers and community. In the early days, many people told us it didn’t matter, that the policy was all-important. But the word itself has blocked any reasonable discussion of policy issues, and we have been unable to move forward as a nation while its use has remained common.
The AP’s new guidance is also a victory for journalists, who strive daily to be accurate and honest with their readers. News people have nothing if not our ability to dig underneath the labels, as the AP says, that provide convenient categories for complex people and problems. When communities also experience those categories as demeaning of their humanity, we have failed at our jobs. The AP just gave us a little more clarity about how to avoid that. They’d like to hear our reactions, so send them a little note.
For years, immigration restrictionists have been stopping all discussion cold with “what about illegal don’t you understand?” Well, we did understand—that the word hid severe problems in the policy, that it has been applied selectively to people of color (undocumented, green-card holding, and citizens alike), and that it fuels hateful action.
People have lost their lives behind this word. Marcelo Lucero, an Ecuadoran immigrant was beaten to death on the streets of Brooklyn by men yelling that he was a “f__ illegal.” That state of affairs could not be allowed to continue and thousands of people just like you took a stand to bring it to an end.
This campaign is inspired and instructed by historic and contemporary struggles over language. The civil rights movement made us stop saying “colored” and worse. The women’s movement changed newspaper standards to use “Ms.” The LGBT community and GLAAD got “homosexual” replaced with gay and lesbian. And most recently, the disability rights community has been pressing us all to stop using the r-word.
Ours is not the first generation to debate the i-word. In the 1980s, the “No Human Being is Illegal” campaign, which was named by Nobel prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel and led by immigrants through the Sanctuary movement, helped humanize immigrants and mobilize support for the 1986 reform. Wiesel’s phrase has been the unofficial tagline for many people supporting this campaign.
Many people contributed to this moment. It would take pages to name them all, but you can see the early adopters here. The tireless staff of the Applied Research Center and Colorlines.com, especially Coordinator Monica Novoa, has lost sleep over this campaign. Roberto Lovato provided critical encouragement and was key to the early campaign strategy.
Before us, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists called for journalists to reevaluate use of the term and the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities challenged local outlets, including the Boston Globe, to make the change. Presente.org and the National Hispanic Media Coalition were stellar partners and Jose Antonio Vargas drove the project home with his impassioned plea to journalists last fall. Linguists, journalists, attorneys and public officials made it clear that they could not use the word in good conscience.
There’s more coming. The New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan, who notes her own conversion to dropping the word but has nothing to do with their style guide, writes that a robust discussion is going on at the Times, but they aren’t likely to make such a sweeping change. Perhaps we could offer a broom? Conservatives like John McCain have pledged not to drop the word, but it’s only a matter of time now before even his own people recognize the last gasp of a dying strategy to divide American communities.
Finally, thanks to the ARC and Colorlines community for your relentless attention to this question of language. Your stories of what it’s like to live under the shadow of that word, your tweets, your petitions, your voices made all the difference. Immigrants, myself included, have had a bit of our humanity restored today, and we are most grateful.