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Drop the I-Word: In Victory for Advocates, Associated Press Stops Using Phrase “Illegal Immigrant”

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The Associated Press has dropped the phrase “illegal immigrant” from its popular stylebook, a move welcomed by immigrant advocates who argue the term is a dehumanizing slur. The influential AP Stylebook is the definitive guide for reporters and editors both within the news cooperative and beyond. We’re joined by Rinku Sen, publisher of and president of the Applied Research Center, which launched the the “Drop the I-Word” campaign in 2010 in order to remove the term “illegals” from everyday use and public discourse. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to a major news story about how the news is reported. The Associated Press has announced that it has dropped the phrase “illegal immigrant” from its stylebook. The move was welcomed by immigrant advocates who argue the term is a dehumanizing slur. The influential AP Stylebook is the definitive guide for reporters and editors both within the news cooperative and beyond.

AMY GOODMAN: The entry for “illegal immigration” now reads, in part, that it should be used to refer to, quote, “Entering or residing in a country in violation of civil or criminal law. Except in direct quotes essential to the story, use illegal only to refer to an action, not a person: illegal immigration, but not illegal immigrant.”

Well, for more, we’re joined by Rinku Sen, publisher of, president of the Applied Research Center, which launched the “Drop the I-Word” campaign in 2010 to remove the term “illegals” from everyday use and public discourse.

Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you, Rinku.

RINKU SEN: It’s good to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, talk about the significance of this. How did this happen?

RINKU SEN: Well, this is a really quite a major move by the Associated Press. It is the first time that the phrase “illegal immigrant” has been taken out of the stylebook. It’s been in there for many years. And for two-and-a-half years, we have been fighting to make that change happen, and many others were fighting to make it happen before we launched the campaign. So, you could call it several years of work in or several decades of work in, but many people— journalists, immigrants, allies alike around the country—have been calling for news outlets to drop that phraseology for a long time, precisely because of the reason that the Associated Press identified, that it’s an imprecise term that is applied in a blanket way, but discriminatorily really toward people of color, whether they are immigrant, whether they are undocumented or not.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Wel, Rinku, it’s interesting that it was a hundred years ago this month that another battle with the AP occurred over a term. Lester Walton, who was then the managing editor of the main black-owned newspaper in New York, the New York Age, wrote to the Associated Press demanding that it begin to capitalize the word “Negro,” because “Negro” was being used only as an adjective in those days, and he felt it was dehumanizing to the black population of the United States, and he began a campaign. The AP agreed to change the word, but it took decades before all the other publications around the country relented even to the AP change. Do you see other publications now following suit—I understand the discussion in The New York Times now about whether it will change its style—or whether there will be continued resistance among publications and broadcast companies around the country?

RINKU SEN: Well, there are two things going on in this case. One is that smaller outlets across the country have already begun to change their practice. So we have recorded, for example, examples of newspapers that publish AP stories about immigration, but they change that word in the story, and they reprint this story, but with that one edit and change in it. So, in part, the AP today is reflecting what has begun to be changed practice in newsrooms. Now, The Washington Post, The New York Times, the L.A. Times, they all have their own style guides; they don’t use the AP’s necessarily. So it is really important that other major outlets, national—the outlets that are considered national outlets in the country, do the same. But I do think that smaller outlets have already begun to make the shift and that the change in the stylebook will just drive that further.

AMY GOODMAN: Rinku, what does it mean to have launched a campaign two years ago? What exactly do you do? How did you approach the Associated Press? And are you doing the same with a number of other papers now?

RINKU SEN: Well, the first thing we really did, Amy, was try to give a voice to the people who are living under the shadow of that label. And so, very early in the campaign, the earliest stuff we put up on the website were direct stories, videos, pieces of writing, really little oral histories of people talking about what effect the word has on them. There are a group of DREAMers in Charlotte, North Carolina, for example, who approached the Charlotte Observer, their local NPR affiliate, their local alternative weekly, to get them all to drop the word, because they experience it as a cudgel used to bully them at school, the middle school and high school kids. So, we tried to first lift up the voices of the people who are directly affected by that term.

And then, second, we generated a debate in journalism, again, working off of efforts that the National Association of Hispanic Journalists had already taken on, the National Alliance of Latino and Caribbean Communities had already taken on, really trying to centralize the question as a debate in journalism about journalism practice and about what makes for good reporting and what doesn’t. And fast-forwarding several—couple of years later, what we now see is people on both sides of the proverbial aisle taking up that debate, and in some cases, some really unexpected people calling for an end to its usage.

AMY GOODMAN: Like who? Like who?

RINKU SEN: Well, the National Hispanic Leadership Network, which is a conservative group of Latinos, did a memo to counter Republican strategist Frank Luntz’s 2005 memo saying that if Republicans, for example, wanted to capture Latino votes, that they would have to stop using tonally insensitive language. That memo was released in late November, very soon after the election.

AMY GOODMAN: Actually, I think we could talk about it specifically.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, yeah. That was—in October 2005, Frank Luntz, the strategist, advised the Republicans on how to speak about the immigration debate in a way that sounds compassionate but still calls for harsher enforcement. He wrote, quote, “The American people aren’t interested in piecemeal immigration 'reform.' Reform is not strong enough. They want to END a system that is much too lenient and far too ineffective. In fact, the candidate that talks about illegal immigration prevention will beat the illegal immigration reform candidate almost everywhere in America. … So be careful of your language; words matter in this upcoming debate.” Talk about—talk about this memo. And also, how do you think it’s being—it’s happening today?

RINKU SEN: Well, the problem with immigration for restrictionists, for people who want to limit—hugely limit—immigration to the country now, is that Americans didn’t actually think that was a big problem. So, through—from the 1980s on to the 2000s, it just wasn’t an issue that was high up in the list of U.S. concerns. And so, restrictionists had to find a way to make it a more salient issue. They got a significant gift on September 11th because of the visa violations that were present in the identities of so many of the terrorists who committed that act. But still, that wasn’t totally enough to make Americans think, “Oh, now we need to really, really limit our immigration system.”

And so, this language of illegality has been used to put a narrow law-and-order frame on immigration. Immigration has many other dimensions. There’s a dimension of work. There is a dimension of family. There is a dimension of escaping war and escaping violence. So, to make immigration policy without any of those global dimensions or personal dimensions is not going to work. But that is in fact what restrictionists wanted to move toward, and they have been successful for a decade. Partly by pushing the language of illegality, they have really limited the immigration debate that we could have.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to another racial slur that was used recently. Over the weekend, Republican Congressmember Don Young apologized after he was recorded calling migrant workers “wetbacks.” Young made the comment during a radio interview in his home state of Alaska.

REP. DON YOUNG: My father had a ranch. We used to hire 50 to 60 wetbacks and—to pick tomatoes. You know, it takes two people to pick the same tomatoes now. It’s all done by machine.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Alaska Congressmember Don Young. House Speaker John Boehner admonished Young for the comment, calling his words “offensive and beneath the dignity of the office.” In his initial apology, Congressman Young said he was unaware the term is considered offensive.

RINKU SEN: Yes, I don’t know where he’s been living for the last 50 years. But here’s the thing. Words can have different meanings based on their common usage. So there was a time when “wetback” was not considered to be a slur by anybody but the people who—against whom it was used. And when those people against whom it was used rose up and said, “Enough of this. You can’t call us that anymore. And, in fact, you can’t treat us that way anymore in the public policy, in employer behavior, in our communities,” then that is when it became a bad word to the public.

AMY GOODMAN: In fact, the U.S. government used it. Operation Wetback—

RINKU SEN: Exactly.

AMY GOODMAN: —was a 1954 operation by the INS, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, to remove undocumented immigrants.

RINKU SEN: Exactly. And that is what has happened with the “I-word,” as well. Twenty years ago, even five years ago, nobody really thought it was a problem, except the people who were attacked with its use. And language changes partly because of the way that we use it. Its meaning changes. And we have to keep up with the harm that that meaning is doing, particularly if we are reporting to the U.S. public on really critical issues that we have to make collective decisions about.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Rinku Sen, we want to thank you for being with us, publisher of, president of the Applied Research Center, which launched the “Drop the I-Word” campaign in [ 2010 ] in order to remove the term “illegals” from everyday use and public discourse. And as you’ve just heard, AP has now said they will not use the term “illegal immigrant” anymore.

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