The Buzz

The Associated Press and the Metaphysics of Illegal Immigration

There are, in the eyes of the Associated Press, no longer any illegal immigrants.

The media group announced that the AP Stylebook, a set of guidelines used by it and many other media organizations, will now direct writers to refer to persons “living in or entering a country illegally or without legal permission.” “Illegal immigration” is still acceptable, but writers must “use illegal only to refer to an action, not a person.” AP executive editor Kathleen Carroll linked this to a broader effort to “[rid] the Stylebook of labels,” noting that its section on mental illness now advises “using credibly sourced diagnoses instead of labels. Saying someone was 'diagnosed with schizophrenia' instead of schizophrenic, for example.” Carroll explained that “while labels may be more facile, they are not accurate.”

We can interpret this notion that certain labels for people are “not accurate” in two ways. The first is that the Associated Press is taking an epistemic position: The claims in reporting must be readily verifiable. People may or may not be schizophrenic, but an overworked journo can only verify that they have been diagnosed with schizophrenia. They can’t peer into someone’s mind and see their schizophrenia, at least not while on deadline. Someone may or may not be an illegal immigrant, but reporters can only report what they can attribute, and should bolster the claim: “Specify wherever possible how someone entered the country illegally and from where. Crossed the border? Overstayed a visa? What nationality?”

The epistemic position is reasonable enough—it ensures that the press doesn’t accuse someone of breaking the law without establishing they actually did. Yet it is also extremely modest—it takes no position on whether people actually have traits like being an illegal immigrant or being schizophrenic. It merely takes a position on what a reporter can quickly and easily confirm, and bids they venture not one inch further. It doesn’t deny the existence of illegal immigrants, which would make the praise for the AP’s revision among advocacy groups unwarranted. It would be a minute change unworthy of a public announcement.

Yet under the epistemic position, one could still call someone an illegal immigrant. Someone might be “accused of being an illegal immigrant.” A reporter might observe someone crossing a border surreptitiously and assert that they “appear to be an illegal immigrant” based on this action. The fact that the Associated Press maintains that such uses of the term would be “not accurate” suggests that they are not taking an epistemic position, but an ontological one. In other words, a person cannot be an illegal immigrant or be schizophrenic. These are not actual properties, but mere labels that others apply.

The problem is that it is difficult to confine this logic. What properties can people have that aren’t mere labels? For example, is Kathleen Carroll the executive editor of the Associated Press, or is she merely a person who people say is the executive editor of the Associated Press? Are there baseball players or astronauts or fishermen or accountants? Things get even stranger when we remember that the AP still accepts, full stop, the notion that there is a phenomenon known as “illegal immigration.” Phenomena can have properties, but people can’t?

Of course the AP Stylebook does not intend that we believe such strange things. What has happened is far simpler: the Associated Press has decided that there are some accurate labels that it does not like and will no longer apply. Reports on illegal immigrants have not been made more accurate or more verifiable. They have merely been made more politically correct.