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PC police at it again?

April 3, 2013

As a writer, I usually attempt to follow the appropriate style guides for the client’s focus or taste. The most common guides are the Chicago Manual of Style and the AP Stylebook, and I get online updates to the latter. Recently I got the following update on the term “illegal immigration”.  This kind of  pushed a button.  It reads in part as follows:

“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. Acceptable variations include living in or entering a country illegally or without legal permission.    Except in direct quotations, do not use the terms illegal alien, an illegal,  illegals or undocumented.”   Source: updates@ April 2, 2013.


Now I get it that the current political goal of many people is to make all persons living in the United States illegally legal.  And I also get that publications have to take into account the libel and slander laws of our sue-happy country. Maybe the AP is just getting ahead of the curve by instituting CYA now, so conceivably they may deserve a pass.  

However, the descriptive term now banned from publications by the AP stylebook is a shorthand form of the longer phrase.  People who have immigrated to this country are called immigrants because they weren’t born here. So that part of the banned phrase seems to be an accurate term. These people can be here legally, meaning that they followed the rules and obtained the required paperwork to prove that they followed the rules.  That proof is normally called a document. I mean, we don’t brand them on a hindquarter like a cow, so the proof must be in some sort of document format.  If they don’t have that proof, they are undocumented, so that part seems OK too. Ergo, if they were not born here, and do not have legal proof that they can reside here, then they must be breaking a law. Things are either legal, or illegal.  The common term used up to now has always been illegal whatever…alien, immigrant, resident, choose your preferred word to indicate that are in fact living in the country, and they don’t have the required legal status to stay here.

Language evolves.  The recent news stories about the politician who referred to folks without that legalizing paperwork as “wetbacks” (which actually was the common term in the 1950’s and 1960’s in California. I know that because I was born in California, and I never heard persons living in the country illegally referred to as anything but that term) because they are considered rude and insulting. These terms are colloquialisms that are not descriptive of a status or provable state of being. This directive doesn’t seem to me to be a natural evolution of language.

The terms “illegal”, “undocumented” and “immigrant” refer to a specific and  provable state of being versus a derogatory colloquialism. It is hard for me to grasp how combining them in a shorter descriptive term violates the sensibility of anyone. If you can’t  stand the heat get out of the kitchen, as Harry Truman used to say. If you are living in the country illegally fixing that problem automatically removes you from that description, and also removes the need to censor the term. Of course then you get into the term “naturalized U.S. citizen”.  I wonder when that will be banned as well. 

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