Buy Photo

Felix Adamo / The Californian

Draped in an American flag, Herlinda Villanueva closes her eyes and extends her arms as she listens to speakers during a rally for immigration reform at Jastro Park. Villanueva stated that her son had been deported. Participants also used the occasion to celebrate the birthday of Cesar Chavez.

Should news organizations refer to people as "illegal immigrants?"

It's been done for years. But this past week the Associated Press revised its influential stylebook and banished the term.

Kathleen Carroll, the AP's senior vice president and executive editor, used a blog posting to explain their thinking.

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

She added:

"Earlier (we had) rejected descriptions such as 'undocumented,' despite ardent support from some quarters, because it is not precise. A person may have plenty of documents, just not the ones required for legal residence. ...

"We (have) in other areas been ridding the Stylebook of labels. The new section on mental health issues argues for using credibly sourced diagnoses instead of labels. Saying someone was 'diagnosed with schizophrenia' instead of schizophrenic, for example.

"And that discussion about labeling people, instead of behavior, led us back to 'illegal immigrant' again. ...

"Is this the best way to describe someone in a country without permission? We believe that it is for now. We also believe more evolution is likely down the road."

Needless to say, the change sparked a lot of comment (see related story on page B1 today.)

From Keene, the United Farm Workers released a statement saying "the decision ... follows an on-line appeal from Cesar Chavez's 85-year old widow, Helen Chavez ...

"Remembering her years laboring in the fields, 'we were called 'wetbacks,' 'dirty Mexicans'--and worse," Helen Chavez wrote in the petition. "It is no longer acceptable to call people names or use stereotypes because of skin color or who people are."

A report emerged from Texas, where San Antonio Express-News dropped the term five years ago.

Using the term "just didn't feel comfortable with us," Jamie Stockwell, managing editor at the Express-News, told the Poynter website, a journalism forum.

In 2008 the paper stopped using the term and replaced it with "undocumented" or "unauthorized immigrant."

In 2010, the Express-News stopped using "immigrant" with a modifier altogether, and opted instead to talk about the issue by using "illegal immigration."

If a person has immigrated illegally, the Express-News will report that "'the person was in the country illegally' and then cite the source of the information," said Stockwell.

This is similar to the procedure announced last week by the Associated Press.

Others were less thrilled.

According to an article on the Fox News website, the conservative Media Research Center described the change as a "politically-correct mumble."

The article went on to quote Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano as saying she didn't "really get caught up in the vocabulary wars.

"They are immigrants who are here illegally, that's an illegal immigrant," she said.

And of course on Twitter, as the L.A. Times notes, the cynics were out in force. Two of my favorites:

"Maoist, cop-killing terrorists should be referred to as 'Professor,'" wrote @ConservativeLA.


"Car thieves are now called 'Vehicle Relocation Specialists,'" wrote @CaptYonah

So here's today's question: what language do you think The Californian should use to describe people who have come into the country without going through an official checkpoint?

Suggestions welcome at Please keep it civil. Thanks. On the web:

Follow John Arthur on Twitter @BakoEditor 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. Sound Off