When it comes to the Associated Press Stylebook, “illegal immigrant” is no more.
The April announcement comes as part of a larger effort by the AP to strike labeling people from its stylebook, which is used by newsrooms across the country. From now on, actions not people are considered illegal, in the same way the AP has chosen not to define people by their illness (an individual is diagnosed with schizophrenia, they are not schizophrenic).
The term “illegal” has been thrown around by those who have sought not only to divide our country, but cause others physical harm. For an unfortunate number of immigrants, this label has carried the weight of life and death.
Several years ago, Long Island teens roamed the streets, looking for so-called “illegals” to physically assault. Some of their victims were U.S. citizens, but all were too frightened to contact the police. These beatings, dubbed “beaner hopping,” occurred as often as three times a week and culminated in the killing of Ecuadorian immigrant Marcelo Lucero. We chronicled this story in our documentary, Not In Our Town: Light in the Darkness.
Every day, immigrants—and others who are labeled as outsiders due to their perceived immigration status, religion, race or sexual orientation—are the targets of hate violence. And so the AP’s refusal to define immigrants as inherently illegal human beings is not only a victory for immigrant communities and the journalists who cover them, but for all of us who care about public discourse, who believe that the words we use matter.
Labels are limiting. Lucero was not just an “illegal.” He was a brother, friend, son, colleague and neighbor. The same is true of countless other victims of hate violence.
Yet the debate goes on. Case in point: Our short school film, “No Human Being is Born Illegal.”
In 2011, we filmed a student-led campaign, “Drop the I-Bomb,” at Jackie Robinson Animo High School in Los Angeles, home to 3.5 million immigrants. For their senior project in a Facing History classroom, students rallied their classmates to stop using the terms “illegal” and “alien” and proposed alternatives. The exercise also made them aware of anti-gay language. As one senior said, “All that hate can lead to death.”
“No Human Being is Born Illegal” is used in classrooms across the U.S. But on NIOT.org, it’s a video that sparks controversy. Many comments don’t meet our comment policy because they contain hate speech and expletives. Among those published, here’s a few examples of the feedback we receive on this student effort to humanize the way we talk about immigrants.
boy am I glad my children do not attend your school!! i support the deportation of ALL illegals
illegal in America means NOT LEGAL. if you don’t want to be called illegal immagrants[sic] then pay your dam[sic] taxes
illegal immigrants or any aliens should not be in america because they takeing[sic] my job
We recognize the need to have these difficult discussions. But we also stand for using words that humanize our neighbors, and so we applaud the Associated Press for taking this important step because mass media informs the way we speak about the issues that matter.
“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,” writes Rinku Sen, president of the Applied Research Center. “The AP just gave us a little more clarity about how to avoid that.”
The Applied Research Center has lead the “Drop the I-Word” campaign since 2010, making it a national issue that included journalists and activists, but also linguists, public officials, and attorneys.
“Immigrants, myself included, have had a bit of our humanity restored today, and we are most grateful,” Sen writes.