Why It’s Not Cool To Say ‘Undocumented Immigrant’

America’s leading news service has a solid reason for its ban, but are the alternatives truly better?

Janice Harayda
3 min readJul 31, 2022


Credit: University of North Texas at Dallas

My work consists in part of being a leg-breaker for the AP Stylebook at print and online media that follow its rules. To stay up to date (hyphenated as a modifier, otherwise not) on changes, I pore (not pour) over email (no hyphen) bulletins from Associated Press editors.

In general I find the AP guidance useful. Without it, other journalists and I would be playing tennis on a court with no lines.

But sometimes I wonder if the news organization has gone too far in its effort to use words in a way that’s fair to everyone they affect. The other day I opened my email program to find a message, tweeted earlier by @APStylebook. Its first sentence was boldfaced:

We don’t use the terms illegal immigrant, unauthorized immigrant, irregular migrant, alien, an illegal, illegals or undocumented (except when quoting people or documents that use these terms). Many immigrants and migrants have some sort of documents, but not the necessary ones.”

Absent from the AP message was guidance on what to say instead of “undocumented.” But @APStylebook added some on Twitter: “Acceptable variations include living in or entering a country illegally or without legal permission. For people: immigrants lacking permanent legal status.”

Screengrab of @APStylebook tweets on June 28, 2022

The clarification added to the confusion. Is it truly better to say “living in or entering a country illegally” (which accuses people of a crime) than “undocumented immigrant” (which says they don’t have the right papers)? Aren’t the “acceptable variations,” in fact, harsher than “undocumented”?

A related issue came up recently on Real Time With Bill Maher when the journalist Sam Stein of Politico and the linguist John McWhorter of Columbia University debated what to call the stormers of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6: Were they “election deniers”? “Insurrection” participants? Something else?



Janice Harayda

Critic, novelist, award-winning journalist. Former book editor of the Plain Dealer and book columnist for Glamour. Words in NYT, WSJ, and other major media.