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Columbia Missourian

DEAR READER: There are no illegal immigrants, just people who enter illegally

By Tom Warhover
April 5, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

Dear Reader,

You may have missed Thursday’s big news of the day: The Associated Press announced that it would now use “underway” as one word, not two. “An argument is now under way/underway in Salon A,” tweeted an attendee at the annual American Copy Editors Society in St. Louis. Other tweets: “Whoah,” “Huge,” and “Noooooo!!!!”


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And so run the passions of copy editors.

You were more likely to have heard about another change to The Associated Press Stylebook. When it comes the long-running political battle over “illegal immigrant” vs. “undocumented worker,” the AP has chosen ….

None of the above.

The AP had previously rejected “undocumented worker” as being too imprecise. “Illegal alien” went otherworldly years ago. “Illegal immigrant,” it said on Tuesday, was dropped as a continuing house cleaning of labels on people.

You’ll continue to see the phrase in direct quotes. You’ll read about the issue of illegal immigration. When it comes to an individual, though, “acceptable variations include living in or entering a country illegally or without legal permission,” the Stylebook says now. The other important part: The writer should include attribution.

So it should be, “Warhover, who police say entered the country illegally, drove his bicycle into the back of a turnip truck Wednesday,” and not, “Warhover, an illegal immigrant, suffered turnip juice stains over 90 percent of his body.”

Actually, according to the stylebook, the article shouldn’t refer to my legal status at all unless it is pertinent. So a run-of-the-mill turnip truck accident probably wouldn’t include the illegal activity unless the accident was at the border while I was trying to sneak into the country.

Not surprisingly, Fox News saw hidden motives in the AP’s actions. The lead from an article Wednesday on the website:

“The Associated Press is being accused of trying to influence the immigration debate following a decision to stop using the term "illegal immigrant" in its coverage -- despite the fact it is still being used by U.S. government officials including Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.”

As best as I can tell from the article, the name of the accuser is “some,” as in “some people.” Still, it’s true that the AP’s decision is a political act in that every word choice is a reflection of the values of the writer or organization. The AP says its decisions revolve around accuracy and clarity, and its value is against placing labels on people.

That goal is clearly impractical in all instances. I can’t imagine political stories about Congress that don’t identify who is a Republican and who is a Democrat.  It may be that avoiding “illegal immigrant” won’t work in all instances either. But I can agree with the aspiration to avoid simple labels that contribute to stereotypes and the intent to make such descriptions attributable. (“Who says” isa question that should be on every reader’s lips anyway when reading the news.)

Language evolves. Long ago we stopped referring to people who use wheelchairs as cripples and people who have a mental illness as crackpots. Sometimes, the debate never seems to end. Many people who believe abortion is wrong insist on using the term pro-life rather than anti-abortion, the term the AP adopted decades ago.

The AP’s decision on the usage of the term illegal immigrants certainly hasn’t ended the argument. In fact, there’s a new head of steam. The debate is under way.

And underway.


Thanks to the local Kiwanis clubs for giving Missourian editors some space and time a couple of weeks ago at the annual pancake breakfast. Editors Joy Mayer, Scott Swafford and Jeanne Abbott attended and gathered story ideas, feedback, and a few extra calories eating what I’m told was a very passable pancake.

Look for more Missourian listening posts around town. I’ll be at the Coffee Zone, 11 N. Ninth St., from 8 to 10 a.m. on Thursday. Stop on by.