This week, the Associated Press announced that they had updated their influential AP Stylebook to remove the term “illegal immigrant.” The move was prompted, in part, by activists who argued that only actions can be “illegal,” not people. As such, the term “illegal immigration” will not be disappearing from AP stories, but you will no longer see its writers discuss “illegal immigrants.”
Though Associated Press editor Tom Kent has insisted that the move was not meant to be political, it has immediately and inevitably been taken up as a cause du jour on conservative media, with Fox News anchors accusing the AP of “cheerleading” for immigration reform and acting as the “word police.” Also unsurprisingly, MSNBC has been one of the few media organizations that has actively defended the AP’s decision.
That brings us to this morning’s episode of Melissa Harris-Perry‘s MSNBC show, which was dedicated almost entirely to immigration and this issue of language. The host began the show by laying out why she agrees with the AP that “language matters,” tying the current debate over the term “illegal immigrant” to past struggles of other minority groups. She mentioned examples like the use of “colored” during the Civil Rights Movement, which has evolved to African-American and “homosexual,” which has been widely replaced with LGBTQ.
Harris-Perry acknowledged the likelihood that the right would call her the “political correctness police” for her views, but insisted that “the way we frame something is all about language,” noting how the words “unborn child” and “fertilized egg” could refer to the same thing but have very different emotional impacts. Similarly, calling a people “illegal” is a strategy that has been successfully perpetrated by the right to stoke fear of immigrants who do not possess proper documentation.
As soon as a person is considered “illegal,” they are effectively dehumanized. As one of Harris-Perry’s guests pointed out, journalists don’t presume guilt on those accused of crimes but rather employ the term “alleged.” Even someone who has spent time in prison or is currently in prison does not get the descriptor “illegal” attached to them.
The AP may be a non-profit organization, but it’s also a private one. While its influence has grown immensely in recent years as more and more newspapers lay off reporters and rely on syndicated AP stories for content, the company does not have some all-powerful control over all media. Every other news organization has the right to use whatever variation of “illegal immigrant” they want, and most are doing just that.
By removing the term “illegal immigrant” from their Stylebook, the AP are not promoting a liberal agenda, or even telling the world what they can and cannot say. They are simply striving to make their articles more accurate and consistent. While there’s no doubt that some at the AP want to do what they can to avoid offending those who have been called “illegal” for as long as they can remember, ultimately, the change is not about respect for immigrants. It’s about respect for language.
Watch video below, via MSNBC:
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