The New York Times Should Stop Referring to Human Beings As “Illegal.”

1,159 needed to reach goal of 1,751

If a word is so inappropriate that editors would remove it from their headline, why would they continue to use it throughout the rest of their publication?

We’re demanding that The New York Times follow the example set forth by the Associated Press, and change their internal style guide to stop using the term “illegal immigrant” to describe undocumented Americans.

On November 27, The New York Times ran a story titled, “The Number of Illegal Immigrants in the U.S. Has Dropped, a Study Says. Here Are 5 Takeaways.” On November 28, after much public outcry, their editorial team elected to update the story with a new headline, “The Number of Undocumented Immigrants in the U.S. Has Dropped…” suggesting that they, at the very least, felt that the use of the word in a headline was inappropriate.

Despite this change, The New York Times has consistently used the term “illegal immigrants” in both headlines and the content of the articles they publish. This, despite the Associated Press issuing an update to their style guide in 2013 not to use the term. As a matter of fact, The New York Times says “illegal immigrant” is “accurate and acceptable,” for use in their publication.

We couldn’t disagree more. It is not acceptable to call a person “illegal.”

The term is also far from accurate. Living in the U.S. without authorization is not a crime, it’s a civil offense legally akin to a traffic ticket. We don’t call someone an illegal driver for rolling a stop sign.

Call on The New York Times to change their style guide to stop using the term “illegal immigrant” to describe people, because their #WordsMatter.

Avoid Inaccurate Terminology

Phrases such as “illegal immigrant” and “illegal alien” replace complex and ever-changing legal circumstances with an unspecified assumption of guilt.

Living in the U.S. without legal authorization (unlawful presence) is a civil offense, while improper entry (crossing the border), is a misdemeanor. It should be noted, that because many undocumented immigrants arrived legally, they have not committed a crime. Other examples of civil offenses include traffic tickets, hunting on a wildlife refuge, theft of a newspaper, mailing a lottery ticket, or refusing to answer questions on the Census.

Supreme Court Justice  Anthony Kennedy has said: “As a general rule, it is not a crime for a movable alien to remain in the United States.”

In April 2013, the Associated Press (AP) informed AP Stylebook users that they no longer sanctioned the terms “illegal immigrant” or “illegal.”  This change was due in part to public pressure from Define American and other advocacy groups.  Another part of its reasoning was to ensure consistency – to describe actions rather than label persons. In the same way that labeling a person an illegal fisher is a poor way to describe someone fishing without a license, calling someone an illegal immigrant is a poor way to describe someone who has broken an immigration law.

At Define American, we use the term “undocumented Americans” for the over 11 million people living in the U.S. without a path to legalization. Here are some other terms that have been used to properly humanize: newest Americans, newcomers, undocumented citizens, unauthorized immigrants, families who have moved from one place to another, and people who weren’t born in the United States.

Download the Fact Sheet

A critical victory!

After years of public pressure, marked by campaigns and social media actions directed at on-air personalities, CNN announced their commitment to refrain from using “illegal immigrant” in their reporting.

Read More

Make the #WordsMatter Pledge

As a representative of a media outlet, I pledge to use accurate and modern language regarding undocumented immigrants and their families.

They Agree. #WordsMatter.



• The Associated Press

• Buzzfeed

• Fusion

• The Huffington Post

• Los Angeles Times

• Politico



• Univision

• USA Today

• Vox


• CTV - Prince George's County Community Television

• Chicago Tribune

• The Denver Post

• The Des Moines Register

• Al Día en América (Louisville, KY)

• Latino Lubbock Magazine (Lubbock, TX)

• NY1

• Tribuna Newspaper (CT)


• Carmen Almendarez

• Andrew Davey | Nevada Today

• Martin Berlanga | Telemundo

• Graham Brewer | Reporter, The Oklahoman

• Lilly Collette | Blogger

• Arthur Connor | Contributing Writer, Idyllwild Town Crier

• Troy Espera | Producer, Balitang America

• Mois Faion | Senior Researcher, Center for the Study of Democracy

• Richard Fazekas | Promotion Director, Rikkyroc Promociones

• Jerald Jamerson | The Relationship

• Dan Kowalski | Editor, Bender's Immigration Bulletin

• Mercedes Lackey | Freelance Author

• Sandra Mattson

• Unai Montes-Irueste | Founder, Our Place in History

• Kathy Parrent

• John de Clef Piñeiro, Esq. | The Peoples' Party

• Glenn Robinson | Executive Editor, CommunityVillageus.us

• Kia Sample | Host, The Kia Sample Show

• Robert Shook | Photojournalist, Rochester Institute of Technology

• Suzette Standring | Columnist, GateHouse Media

• Megan Strom | Columnist, La Prensa de Minnesota

• Ana M. Fores Tamayo | Founder, Adjunct Justice


• The Badger Herald, University of Wisconsin

• Cornell Sun, Cornell University

• The Yale Daily News, Yale University

• University Daily Kansan, University of Kansas

• The Stanford Daily, Stanford University

• The Harvard Crimson, Harvard University

• University of California Los Angeles


• Sarah Wells | News Editor & Photo Editor, The Cedar Post

• Daniel Hamilton | Editor in Chief, HHSToday

• Alex Rand | Editor in Chief, The McClintock Guidon

• Saba Mashayekhi

• Austin Michael

• Juan Vasallo

• Alyssa Downer

• Eryn Ormesher | Editor in Chief, The Advocate

• Stephi Smith | News Editor, Mountlake Terrace High School Hawkeye

• Marianne Nacanaynay Smith | Reporter, Mountlake Terrace High School Hawkeye

• Morgan Donohue

• Katy Clanton

• Hannah Schoenbaum | Editor in Chief, Trident Magazine

• Jodi Parker | Copy Editor, Trident Magazine

• Andrew Young | Videographer Captain, Los Altos High School, The Talon

• Rylea Gillis | Sports Editor, Whitney Update

• Franco Vidal | Writer, The North Star

• Katie Peurrung | Photo Editor, Hanford Student Media

• Rachel Marquardt | Copy Editor, The Roar

• Hanan Begic | Co-Design Editor, Details Yearbook

• Sierra Makayla | Data Editor, The Chroncile

• Katie Kroeppler

• Claire Caldera | Layout Editor & Reporter, Beyond the Cave

• Alexis Sullivan | Editor in Chief, Inkwell

• Caitlyn Dolan | Photographer, Mountain Home High School

• Rachael Loughry

• Nicole Asbury | Editor in Chief, LV Junebug

• Rhianna McDaniel | Assistant Editor in Chief, LV Junebug

• Lauren Hawkins | Business Editor/Managing Editor, LV Junebug

• Jorge Grijalva | Writer and Opinions Editor, The Anchor, Port of Los Angeles High School Newspaper

• Aarushi Pant | Managing Editor, The Saga Newspaper

• Rachael Lizardi | Director/Writer, Airport High School

• Caitlin Williams

• Oluoma Obi | Copy Editor, Shawnee Mission North Indian Yearbook

• Logan Finney

• Veronica Liow | Multimedia Editor, The Cedar Post

• Kim Vinh | Adviser, Raven Report, Sequoia High School

• Grace Davis

• Maria Martinez, Assistant Editor, Musket


• The National Association of Hispanic Journalists

• The Filipino American Press Club of New York