Illegal No More: AP Changes Their Stylebook

Yesterday the Associated Press announced an update to their Stylebook to rid their reporting of the term “illegal immigrant” and the use of “illegal” to describe a person. The AP Stylebook is a guide for writers and editors at the venerable news wire. It is also an industry standard used by print and broadcast news across the country. 

“Illegal,” the new guidelines say, “should describe only an action, such as living in or immigrating to a country illegally.”

Here’s the entry in full:

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 alienan illegalillegalsor 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.

The change comes after a campaign from immigrant rights activists to get American news organizations to stop using the term “illegal” to refer to people. The New York Times’s public editor Margaret Sullivan also announced today that incremental changes to their style around the term will probably change this week. This comes after taking a public stance in favor of the term “illegal immigrant” in October.

Sullivan writes:

It’s good to see these moves taking place. Language evolves and it’s time for these changes. Early in my tenure as public editor, I considered this question and came down in favor of the continued use of “illegal immigrant,” because it was a clear and easily understandable term. My position on this has changed over the past several months. So many people find it offensive to refer to a person with an adjective like “illegal” that I now favor the use of “undocumented” or “unauthorized” as alternatives.

Fi2W has been reporting on this subject for years. A year ago we hosted a discussion on our podcast with Julia Preston, national immigration correspondent for the New York Times, and Monica Novoa, a writer for Colorlines and the organizer of the “Drop the I-Word” campaign.

Listen to the podcast here:


In 2011 we hosted an event at the New School in New York City where Jose Antonio Vargas, the most visible proponent of ditching the term “illegal,” spoke. You can listen to that podcast here.

Fi2W is supported by the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation and the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation.

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AboutAaron Leaf
Aaron Leaf is a writer, editor, and digital producer based in New York with a special interest in African politics, immigrant diasporas, and the future of cities. Raised in Canada, he has lived on four continents and has written for a wide variety of publications. Recent bylines include Al Jazeera America, The Nation, The Globe and Mail and The Guardian.