The Associated Press today made an annoucement that it has changed its stylebook to drop the term "illegal immigration" and will instead adopt the term "undocumented immigration." It has ordered the former term banned in its reporting. A stylebook according to the New York Times, is "the definitive guide to usage, relied upon by writers and editors, for the purpose of consistency." The New York Times, the gray lady herself, also signalled that it may soon follow AP's move but their change would not be "as sweeping" and would be "more incremental" and would “provide more nuance and options” for what term to use.
All of these developments are a welcome move for immigration advocates who have long argued against the term "illegal" as rendering a person illegitimate when in fact it is their actions, not the person that is in question. Words do have consequences and "illegal" dehumanizes and de- legitimates a person when in fact it is their action that is under question, not their humanity. It is not one's very existence that is illegal; it is their immigration status. It is not surprising that this move by two major news outlets are coinciding with the drive toward comprehensive immigration reform, marked by even most social conservatives giving way to the idea that a path to citizenship is inevitable--the country is enjoying a tolerant period.
The refocusing of terminology is important. In explaining their decision, Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll stated, "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." This makes sense. Think of what we call persons who have broken laws: smuggler, embezzler, arsonist, rapist, burglar, robber, thief, murderer, albeit all of these are criminal rather than civil laws, which is immigration. Yes, one can speculate as to the moral shortcoming of the person, but the word highlights the objectionable action, not the person. Change in this case is good.