Illegal Immigrant: Defending the Term


In the wake of the Associated Press decision to drop the use of “illegal Immigrant” from their Stylebook, I have reviewed my use of the language in this blog.  Here is my conclusion.

The term “illegal immigrant” may not be the perfect solution, as reasonable shorthand to refer to a foreign national present in the United States in violation of immigration laws, but it is far better than the alternative that is being provided: “undocumented immigrant”.

Jonathan Rosa, an assistant professor of Linguistic Anthropology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, believes that “immigrant” defines someone who is a legal permanent resident.

A group of 24 scholars, led by Rosa, put out a statement last week arguing that “illegal immigrant” should not be the preferred phrasing because it’s imprecise and frames the debate in narrow terms. “It is baffling to think that [The New York Times] would suggest ‘illegal immigrant’ is accurate and neutral,” Rosa said in an interview with ABC/Univision. “The U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act defines immigrants as people who have been lawfully admitted for permanent residence, so “legal immigrant” is a redundant concept and ‘illegal immigrant’ is oxymoronic,” he noted. 1

By this reasoning, the term “undocumented immigrant” would imply that a person is legally present in the United States but for a missing piece of documentation.  This shorthand does not convey the full nature of a foreign national present in the United States in violation of immigration laws.

I would prefer the term “illegal alien”.  From a legal standpoint, it is more correct and it would end the confusion regarding the word “immigrant”.  Unfortunately, we have dropped the word “space” for the term “space alien” so in common usages “alien” refers to a creature from outer space.  I would concede that this renders that term dehumanized, not because it is technically incorrect, but because of our cultural vocabulary deficiency.  I have discontinued the use of the term “illegal alien”.

Key here though is not the word “immigrant” but the word “illegal”.  The movement pushing the term “undocumented “ to describe a person, or to discuss the body of persons in the United States in violation of US immigration law, is not about replacing an imperfect term, it is all about scrubbing the word “illegal” from the discussion.

So, why not “illegal immigrant”?  Some feel that the term “illegal immigrant” is offensive.   Advocates for “undocumented” say that groups have the right to self-identity.  I would agree that racial, ethnic groups have that right to self-identity and have the right to change that identifier as they see fit.  But illegal immigrants are not a racial or ethnic group.  An illegal immigrants’ only common element is their illegal presence in the United States.  I can understand that someone in the United States, in violation of immigration law or someone who cared about a person who is in violation of US immigration law, would be uncomfortable with the word “illegal”.  But can you maintain your journalistic integrity while backing away from a clear and powerful language because some are not comfortable with the clear meaning that it conveys?  Undocumented is less powerful, it is less offensive and it is also less clear.

The other objection to the term “illegal immigrant” suggests that a person cannot be “illegal” and we should only use “illegal” to describe an illegal action.  One common example given is that you would not call a jaywalker an “illegal walker”.

“If we talk about a child who skips school, we don’t say he’s an illegal student,” Santa Ana said in reference to truancy laws. “We call a person who crosses the street illegally a jaywalker, not an illegal walker.” Linguists George Lakoff and Sam Ferguson suggest in their 2006 paper “The Framing of Immigration”2

This reasoning fails to recognize the continuous nature of one’s immigration status or citizenship.  A jaywalker is only a jaywalker while they are crossing the street improperly.  An illegal immigrant is in a constant state of violation of US immigration law.

The New York Times style guide maintains that “undocumented” is a “euphemism”.  I agree with the assessment.  I hope that The New York Times will stand by that clear statement of journalistic principle.

Immigration activist Jose Antonio Vargas’ campaign to replace “illegal” with “undocumented”, which is largely responsible for the reassessment and change to the AP Stylebook, is not about clarity but about shifting the conversation away from the fact that millions of foreign nationals are present in the United States in violation of immigration laws.  Jose Antonio Vargas is making a moral argument that anyone should be able to become a United States Citizen.  He believes that the millions of illegal immigrants are not in fact illegal but have simply not yet received the legal recognition and legal documents to which they are morally entitled.

While discussing as a group of foreign nationals present in the United States in violation of immigration laws, I will continue to use the shorthand term “illegal immigrants” I feel it conveys, in the most direct way, the nature of their immigration status.

Individuals who are subject to immigration law enforcement action will be referred to as “alleged illegal immigrants”.

The subset of illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children will be referred to, when the context of the story merits a deeper understanding of their immigration reality, as “Dreamers” or “children who were brought to the United States in violation of immigration law”.

This brings me full circle back to Jose Antonio Vargas.  Mr. Vargas would like us to call him an undocumented immigrant; someone who lacks a document to legitimize his legal status.   I cannot do that.  It just does not express the reality of his immigration status.  If Mr. Vargas is offended by my use of language, I can only say that I am offended by millions of foreign nationals who have knowingly, and with intent, disregarded the immigration laws of the United States of America.

1) http://abcnews.go.com/ABC_Univision/linguists-york-times-illegal-neutral-accurate/story?id=17366512#.UVzChVeRcxD

2) http://abcnews.go.com/ABC_Univision/linguists-york-times-illegal-neutral-accurate/story?id=17366512&page=2#.UV2SV1eRcxA

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2 Responses to Illegal Immigrant: Defending the Term

  1. oxcamel says:

    I have read your posts on illegal immigrants with interest. While I understand your view, I think lumping all of those in the US illegally is not fair or accurate. The ‘wetback’ sprinting across the border or being stuffed in truck, hidden from the border guards are the pictures people get when they think of illegal immigrants. Many, however, were here legally on student or work visas and those visas expired and they were unable to extend them.

    I’m influenced in this regard by a personal experience (if it’s OK for Portman, it’s OK for me) when I watched a Theta Chi brother try to find a job before his student visa expired. He, unfortunately, was unable to find a job and had to return to Columbia and one of the most violent cities in the world at that time. He did stay illegally for a short time, before he resigned himself to return home. Many others stay longer, because they love this country and feel a part of it or because it is better then returning to a place where poverty or violence is part of their society on a daily basis and at a level that Americans cannot comprehend.

    As far as a solution, there isn’t a single solution that will solve the problem. I believe deportation for those here that are involved in criminal activity (other then being here illegally) or that are not productive members of society, those who take from the system rather then giving by working and paying taxes, etc. For those who are productive, a path to citizenship should be available. Generally, over a certain period of time, if they can keep a job and be a good member of society, allow them to become naturalized citizens. This would include those who were brought here as children by their parents. One of the bigger issues is that we have so many illegals that are working. Someone is hiring them. Some businesses have been given illegal documents. Some pay under the table for less then what they would pay normally. Some just ignore the laws and put them to work anyway. INS needs to not just go after the untold millions that are here illegally, but also the businesses and individuals who hire them. Severe fines and other penalties for multiple infractions would stop or, at least, curtail the hiring of illegals. There should also be penalties for the individuals who are involved so they cannot just change the business name and start again or change jobs and do it the same thing again.

    Finally (sorry, for the length of this comment), your post brings up one more issue I have with the political system as it exists, the semantics of labeling things with positive or negative connotations depending on your view. Are you anti-abortion? No, you are pro-life. Are you pro-abortion? No, you are pro-choice. Are you rich? A job creator? A 1%er. An example of the American Dream? Yes, sometimes a name can be more accurate (few people are truly pro-abortion), but most people know what is meant. Politicians work harder at trying to label a problem or people to help support their position instead of looking at the problem and finding a way to solve it. Politicians and the media need to stop making issues black and white. Or red and blue. Because when 51% vote one way or another, the state is not red or blue, it is purple. And the purples want the government to stop playing power games and working on the problems that face the US, as Americans, not as Democrats or Republicans.

    • Jeff Detmer says:

      I am not sure why someone who over stays a temporary visa in more entitle to a path to citizenship than anyone else in the world. What part of temporary is not being understood? I feel for your friend. But you are in fact making an argument for unlimited immigration. If we opened our door to everyone that live in a poor or violent country we would be overwhelmed with millions or even tens of millions of immigrates. Let say that we would have open immigration with just those countries that are poorer and more violent than Columbia that would make what, a couple (five) billion people eligible for immigration to the United States. You simple cannot fix the world’s problems by immigrating everyone to the US.

      I am with you; we should do more to punish business and individuals that hire illegal immigrates. But, how do the actions of employers, excuse foreign nationals that violate our immigration law?

      If we cannot bring ourselves to require foreign nationals to return home after temporary visas expire maybe the only answers is to stop all temporary vise program. That would be silly of course, at some point we need to follow the rule of law.

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