The Times's public editor, Margaret Sullivan, blogged Tuesday that earlier in her career she had supported the term “illegal immigrant” but had changed her opinion in recent months. Although she has no role in making the final decision, she expects the Times to issue new guidelines as early as this week.
“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,” she notes in the blog. Smaller regional news outlets such as The Miami Herald have already dropped the term from their coverage.
The new AP guideline speaks to the heart of the political debate over immigration today, says Robin Jacobson, an associate professor at the University of Puget Sound who teaches courses in immigration politics. The struggle over immigration reform is essentially about how to understand and conceptualize immigrants, she notes in an e-mail interview, “not about the exact numerical limit on admissions or the details of immigration procedures."
"Is undocumented immigration to be understood as a crime or a technical bureaucratic violation? Are those without the proper papers rational actors in an irrational system or criminals who don't respect any rule of law?" she adds.
In this debate and others like it, the AP has extraordinary, but unrecognized, power, says Hillary Warren, an associate professor of communication at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio. “It determines what we call something.”
In February, the AP changed its style to allow for the use of "husband" or "wife," instead of "partner," when referring to same-sex marriage. “That language both recognized a significant change in American society and reinforced that change,” she adds in an e-mail.