The debate over immigration reform has raised a question that’s almost as challenging: What should we call the approximately 11 million people who are in the United States illegally?
The term illegal immigrants has been used routinely and is often considered neutral. News organizations, including The Philadelphia Inquirer, have used it for years to describe people by their actions. But there is a case to be made that it dehumanizes a class of people by suggesting that they themselves are somehow against the law.
Many in the media are reconsidering the term now that The Associated Press has revised its guidance via its Stylebook, a bible of journalistic usage. At the urging of immigration activists, the AP recently declared that its writers will be discouraged from using the words “illegal immigrant” to describe a person. (Illegal immigration is still OK because it refers to the unlawful act.)
The debate has spread to Congress, where Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., has introduced a resolution urging House members not to refer to “undocumented foreign nationals” as “illegal immigrants.” While Rush and others prefer the term undocumented, the AP has discouraged its general use because many immigrants lack certain required documents but not others.
With a sweeping immigration reform bill introduced in Congress last week, The Associated Press’ decision is a timely reminder that this debate is about people who broke the law, not people who are against the law. Otherwise law-abiding immigrants who are here illegally want and deserve a chance to become citizens and contribute more to society. The only label they want is American.