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Foreign concept
April 04, 2013, 05:00 AM By Michelle Durand Daily Journal Staff

The illegal immigrant is now, for all intents and purposes, an alien concept.

On Tuesday, the Associated Press -- the Bible of newspaper style guidelines that cut across political leanings and personal preferences -- alerted newsrooms that the term "illegal immigrant" has now been replaced by "immigrants who live in or enter a country illegally or without legal permission."

Specifically, journalists are told outside of direct quotes to use illegal only in reference to an action but not a person. The terms illegal alien, an illegal, illegals or undocumented are also getting the boot.

In other words, it's not who you are, it's what you do. And even if you do something that is prohibited under current law, god forbid you dare be defined by it.

The Associated Press' standards are an ever-evolving set of rules and, even with this switch, the organization concedes even more change to the language of immigration is expected down the road. That's fair; even the dictionary makes amendments.

But if the Associated Press is so gung ho about what it deems as progress, why are reporters still spelling out "compact disc" on first reference as though readers think music reviews are really alluding to certificates of deposit? And cellphone -- still don't understand how that became one word along with website.

The real problem with this illegal immigrant change is that there is no accurate but brief replacement word or term. As anybody who has ever tried crafting a headline or succinctly writing a lead sentence to a news story knows, brevity is more than the soul of wit. Brevity is a requirement when working with a lot of information in a limited space. "Immigrants who entered the country illegally" is just a bit wordy. Undocumented or undocumented worker could both be incorrect. Not every immigrant works and plenty have documents, just not the paperwork needed to reside in the United States legally.

Immigrant advocates may hail the switch as a victory but changing the words doesn't change their status and it doesn't change the current laws.

But if illegal alien or illegal immigrant is now uncouth, what then?

Wily wanderers? Resident afoul of the border? Stealthy tourists? Uninvited guests? Replacement neighbors? Country squatters?

Perhaps, a page out of Harry Potter would suffice -- Those Who Shall Not Be Named.

The land of free speech is becoming the land of free to say anything, but not things that might rub somebody the wrong way.

For its part, the Associated Press decision-makers (oh wait, I mean executives who make style decisions) claim the change is an overall move away from labels, calling them a way for lazy reporters to pigeonhole folks. Side note, nobody is any longer schizophrenic. They are people diagnosed with schizophrenia. Marilyn Monroe was not a bombshell blonde. She was an actress with platinum tresses.

And that pesky 1 percent? Chances are they will soon change from "the rich" to "those with extra disposable income" who are challenged by "those who occupy."

In that vein, I will no longer report on murderers. I will report on individuals who just happen to murder people. Wouldn't want to put O.J. Simpson and Scott Peterson in a box.

I will not write about city officials but men and women who serve as councilmembers.

I am also no longer a reporter and columnist. I am a person who happens to report and occasionally write columns. And, in this space today, I am a person writing a column that contends the only thing the Associated Press needs to change is its mind.

Michelle Durand's column "Off the Beat" runs every Tuesday and Thursday. She can be reached by email: or by phone (650) 344-5200 ext. 102. What do you think of this column? Send a letter to the editor:

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