The Associated Press recently announced a major change in the way it describes people with an unlawful presence in the United States. The AP Stylebook, which spells out the standards most media outlets use, no longer sanctions the terms “illegal” and “illegal immigrant” to refer to undocumented people.

Latino and immigrant advocacy groups applauded this move, which they had promoted for years. Many conservatives accused the organization of bowing to political correctness.

But this isn’t a question of mere political correctness. It’s about accuracy, fairness, and respect. The “I-word” offends immigrants and American values. “Illegal” is a loaded term that has polluted the immigration debate for too long.

The AP made the right decision because calling a person “illegal” disregards one of the cornerstones of our justice system, the presumption of innocence. Consider that when journalists report on a child molester or a serial killer, they are always careful to include the word “alleged” or “suspected.”

That’s the correct thing to do by law. And the undocumented are entitled to the same protection. Only a judge can determine whether a person is lawfully in the country — not a journalist, or even a Department of Homeland Security official.

Bob Dane of the Federation for American Immigration Reform criticized the AP’s new position. “What they’re really doing is interjecting a form of bias in their reporting,” he told Fox News Latino. Yet by dropping “illegal,” the AP encourages better reporting.

One big problem with the term “illegal immigrant” is that the vast majority of the undocumented are civil — not criminal — offenders, as being in the country unlawfully is a misdemeanor.

Illegal Immigration, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Illegal Immigration, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Homeland Security officials told The New York Times that 40 percent of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States didn’t enter the country illegally. They entered legally and then overstayed their visas. “Undocumented” and “unauthorized” are more precise terms for these immigrants than “illegal.”

Although the majority of the undocumented came to this country in search of better opportunities, their ranks also include asylum seekers, refugees, and victims of traffickers. It’s needlessly hurtful and punitive to tag them all with a negative label like “illegal” simply because they lack papers.

Still, conservative pundit Michelle Malkin lashed out at the AP, accusing the news organization of being an “activist, progressive organ.” She’s missing the bigger picture.

The AP is wisely evolving along with society. When’s the last time you heard someone refer to a person as “Negro” or “colored”? Do you know what someone means when they use the expression “Ms.” instead of “Miss” or “Mrs.”?

And isn’t it becoming rare for members of the LGBT community to be referred to as “homosexuals” in the media or political debate?

Dropping the “I-word” simply reflects the AP’s increased sensitivity to Latinos, the largest U.S. minority.

True, it can be easier for journalists to use the shorthand of “illegal” rather than the more cumbersome alternatives. But journalism shouldn’t be about the easy route. Besides, the “I-word” is often selectively applied. Celebrities from Eminem to Martha Stewart to Keifer Sutherland have criminal records, yet the media rarely refers to them as “illegals.”

Why should the most vulnerable and marginalized among us be singled out as criminals? As the AP explained in a statement, “illegal” should refer to an activity, not a person.

The AP’s move is especially commendable in light of today’s immigration debate. By dropping simplistic and denigrating terms, we can move toward a deeper, more informed dialogue. And it may save lives, for dehumanizing language can lead to violence. For example, Ecuadorian immigrant Marcelo Lucero was assaulted and killed in Patchogue, New York. During the course of this 2008 hate crime, his attacker called him an “illegal.”

The AP is sending a powerful and positive message by ditching the “I-word.” No human being is illegal. It’s time we all drop this harmful, inappropriate term.

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Raul A. Reyes

Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and columnist in New York City.
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