The Associated Press has dropped the use of the term "illegal immigrant," but it's unclear whether lawmakers in Washington will do the same.
Members of Congress used the phrase dozens of times over the last several years to describe a person who migrates to the U.S. illegally, as well as the terms "illegal alien" and "undocumented," according to an analysis from the Sunlight Foundation reporting tool Capitol Words, which scans the Congressional Record.
Republicans favored "alien" while Democrats more often used "undocumented." Reps. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, and Ted Poe, R-Texas, employed the term "illegal immigrant" the most over the last five years. A staffer for Smith says the congressman will continue to use the phrase, and trusts the AP will keep quoting people who do so as well.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is also unlikely to change her ways — at a reporter breakfast last week she said she didn't worry about the phrase she used to describe a person in the U.S. illegally. "They are immigrants who are here illegally. It's an illegal immigrant," she said.
Poe's office did not respond to questions about whether the congressman would also continue to use the term.
Jonathan Rosa, an assistant professor of linguistic anthropology at the University of Massachusetts—Amherst, says he believes the AP's decision will have an impact on lawmakers, but won't change their discourse overnight.
"The phrasing is more about signaling one's political affiliation than about trying to describe immigration," says Rosa. "We see the promotion of illegality as staking out a claim to a conservative political agenda, while the use of 'undocumented' is staking out a claim to a progressive political ideology. Neither one is neutral."
Immigration-related phrases are often politically charged, and in part that may lie in their history. Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist and professor at the University of California—Berkeley's School of Information, says both "illegal" and "alien" have rather sordid pasts. He notes that the word "illegal" was first used as a noun in the 1930s and 1940s by the British to describe the Jews who entered Palestine without official permission, and the word "alien," though used in a pejorative way to describe a foreigner even early in the 20th century, became more negative and scary after science fiction authors began using it to refer to extraterrestrials.
Nunberg thinks the phrase "illegal immigrant" will eventually become relegated to fringe groups, not lawmakers. "I call it rump language - words that survive on the far right or far left decades after they've died out," he says.
One right-wing group already responded to the change: the Americans for Legal Immigration PAC says it plans to use the phrase "illegal invader" to balance the AP's decision.