The Associated Press has removed the word “illegal immigrant” from its style guide. Although at least one journalist has pointed out that the AP has failed to suggest a viable (and non-awkward) alternative, it is likely that the derogatory and unfair term will be replaced with the more correct term “undocumented immigrant.”
Many commentators have noted that the term “illegal immigrant” is legally incorrect and harmful. Justice Kennedy, in a recent Supreme Court case, accurately explained: “it is not a crime for a removable alien to remain present in the United States.” By labeling a person “illegal” or “illegal immigrant” an individual him or herself is being judged, as opposed to a behavior that often occurred in the distant past. In the US criminal justice system, an individual is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty. The media takes much care not to play jury and judge when reporting. A journalist, for example, would not call a driver who once drove drunk an “illegal driver” in perpetuity. Even terrorists and child molesters are graced with the word “alleged” when referred to by journalists. Why, then, would an individual who overstayed his or her visa – an act that is not a crime under US law – to be deemed “illegal” until his or her status is authorized by law?
It is neither fair nor appropriate for a journalist to assess an individual’s legal status in the US. A person who entered without permission or overstayed his or her visa may in fact gain status. It is beyond the expertise of a journalist to make this assessment.