TIME Magazine’s cover drew attention to undocumented immigrants like Jose Antonio Vargas. Now the Associated Press has dropped use of the term “illegal immigrants.”

AP drops “illegal immigrant,” means a person will no longer be described as illegal

The Associated Press, a news cooperative which licenses its stories to organizations across the country, is changing its long-standing style entry concerning undocumented immigrants, which it has referred to as “illegal immigrants” up until now.

“The Stylebook no longer sanctions the term “illegal immigrant” or the use of “illegal” to describe a person,” said senior vice president and executive editor Kathleen Carroll. “Instead, it tells users that “illegal” should describe only an action, such as living in or immigrating to a country illegally.”

The term has long been an issue of contention by activists like former journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, who is undocumented and joined others in railing against the Associated Press and others who continued to use what they felt was outdated terminology.

Tony Hernandez, the founder of Immigrant Archive Project (IAP), which documents the stories of immigrants, says he welcomes the change.

“Words are mere vessels for meaning, and this particular term, in my opinion has been used to victimize by suggesting ‘criminality,'” he said. “The fact remains that immigration violations are considered civil offenses — no different from a parking violation, yet we would never consider the term “illegal drivers.”

He said  it’s time the country moves away from “illegal immigrant” the way it did from words describing mental disabilities and sexual preference.

In September, Vargas spoke in front of a gathering of journalists at the Online News Association conference in San Francisco where he equated using the word “illegal” to describe an immigrant to days long since past when women were identified by their marriage status and when gay individuals mentioned in stories were described by their sexual preference.

Many took to Twitter to cheer the decision by the Associated Press, echoing the common refrain from advocates that “no human being is illegal.” The National Council of La Raza tweeted, “Well done!” in sharing the news.

The  Associated Press did not say it supports using the word undocumented, however.

“The discussions on this topic have been wide-ranging and include many people from many walks of life,” Carroll said. “Earlier, they led us to reject descriptions such as “undocumented,” despite ardent support from some quarters, because it is not precise. A person may have plenty of documents, just not the ones required for legal residence.”

As Vargas tweeted, many will turn their attention to organizations like the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal that still use “illegal immigrant.” Activists also want politicians from both parties, like Republican Senator John McCain and Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer, both on the bipartisan “Gang of 8” senators working on immigration reform, to drop the phrase.

NBC Latino uses NBC News guidelines and “undocumented immigrant” to describe individuals who are not in the country legally.

The IAP’s Hernandez says John Franklin Stephens, a man from Virginia with Down syndrome who serves as a “global messenger” for the Special Olympics, has written extensively about words that hurt him, like “retard” and the parallels with undocumented immigrants are easy to spot.

“So, what’s wrong with ‘retard’?” he wrote.

“I can only tell you what it means to me and people like me when we hear it. It means that the rest of you are excluding us from your group. We are something that is not like you and something that none of you would ever want to be. We are something outside the ‘in’ group. We are someone that is not your kind.”

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