Language Matters: ‘Undocumented’ versus ‘Illegal’

Immigration has been a simmering issue in the United States for a long time, and I suspect that it is about to explode in the very near future. Tensions are building and the economy is crumbling, and that’s going to lead to, well, problems. Problems like the horrific law recently passed in Arizona mandating that police officers check everyone’s immigration status. This means that I’m going to be talking more about immigration policy and related issues, which brings me to the subject of this Language Matters post: the terminology we use to talk about people who have immigrated to the United States, because I want there to be no confusion on this point.

I use ‘undocumented immigrant’ to talk about a person who has not entered the United States by legal means, or who has entered by legal means, but has overstayed a visa or other travel document. An undocumented immigrant is a person who lacks legal immigration status, for whatever reasons. Undocumented immigrants may have immigration paperwork, but it is outdated, they may lack paperwork altogether, or they may have forged or falsified documents.

I do not say ‘illegal immigrant.’

There are a number of reasons for this.

The first, and what I think is the most critical, is that ‘illegal immigrant’ is incredibly dehumanising.

An immigrant is a person who has moved from one country to another. People? Cannot be illegal. A person. Cannot. Be. ‘Illegal.’ When you say ‘illegal immigrant,’ you are literally saying ‘illegal person,’ because you are using ‘illegal’ as an adjective to describe a human being. A person can, however, be undocumented. As an adjective, ‘undocumented’ suggests that someone lacks paperwork. It is not a strike against someone’s very humanity and right to exist.

You also won’t see me using ‘illegal’ or ‘illegals’ to describe an undocumented immigrant or group of undocumented immigrants. These terms are even more dehumanising than ‘illegal immigrant’ and I actually cringe when I encounter them. I encounter them a lot more often than I would like to, including from people whom I would like to think know better.

I’ve seen anti-immigration rhetoric suggesting that ‘undocumented immigrant’ is a contradiction in terms because these people mistakenly believe that the word ‘immigrant’ conveys some kind of information about immigration status; that ‘immigrant’ means that someone has immigration documents and thus ‘undocumented immigrant’ is a contradiction in terms. That’s not true. The word ‘immigrant’ provides absolutely no information about someone’s immigration status. It just means that someone has migrated from one country to another. Used alone, it has come to suggest that someone has immigration paperwork which is in order, but that’s not actually what this word means.

People aren’t illegal. Someone’s immigration status can be illegal. But a person can’t actually be illegal. ‘Illegal immigrant’ reinforces ideas about immigrants and immigration with which I am deeply uncomfortable. I have no doubt that many people with anti-immigration beliefs actually think that undocumented immigrants should be ‘illegal’ and I see no reason to reinforce or tacitly support that idea with my language use. As this law in Arizona shows, this country has no problem with making it very clear that some people are not welcome and that they will be ejected by any means possible.

I, as should come as no surprise, am not very impressed with the state of immigration law in this country right now. And I think it’s worth exploring the history of attitudes about immigration in this country. At various times in our history, different groups have been barred from entry or subjected to entirely legal discrimination by virtue of their nations of origin, religious background, or skin colour. Here in the Great State of California, people from Asia were barred from owning property until surprisingly recently. In New York, ‘No Irish Allowed’ signs decorated businesses large and small at the turn of the last century.

All of these debates, of course, ignore a fundamental issue which is rarely discussed in the immigration debate: The fact that people were already here when Europeans arrived. The Native Americans who inhabited North America when Europeans started colonising it certainly didn’t pass any immigration laws to bar Europeans from entering. Europeans took over their lands, killed them, and forced them onto reservations. Once the continent had been colonised, steps began to be taken to prevent ‘the wrong types of people’ from immigrating.

There were quotas. Inspections at Ellis and Angel Islands to keep ‘the wrong people,’ including people with disabilities, out. Discriminatory immigration¬† policy continues to this day as people are kept out or removed from the United States for being ‘the wrong sort.’ And all of this debate conveniently glosses over the fact that we, people of European extraction[1. I also have Native American ancestors, a not uncommon situation for many people in the United States, and while it’s actually a substantial percentage of my genetic heritage, I am not culturally Native and would not claim to be.], are policing who ‘gets’ to be in the United States while ignoring the fact that we are the descendants of immigrants.

And that some of our ancestors were, in fact, illegal. On my father’s side, we are relatively recent arrivals in the United States, and reviewing family paperwork, I can determine that at least one of my great grandparents was an undocumented immigrant to the United States. That person evaded detection and deportation by virtue of being ‘the right sort’ of immigrant at the time, thus ensuring that law enforcement never investigated, let alone initiated deportation proceedings.

There’s a lot of inflammatory rhetoric surrounding immigration into this country. I’m not going to participate in it, because I’m interested in actually discussing immigration, rather than reinforcing preformed opinions.

2 Replies to “Language Matters: ‘Undocumented’ versus ‘Illegal’”

  1. I want you to know that this post made at least a small difference. In trying to convey that undocumented immigrants are actual people who deserve to be treated with basic human dignity in a conversation yesterday, I used the term “illegal aliens.” I hadn’t previously thought about the dehumanizing nature of the phrase, so thank you for writing about it. I agree with your premise and will change my use of terminology accordingly.


  2. My boyfriend made me aware of the dehumanizing wording in “illegal immigrant” when he mocked a campaign by a left-wing party in my country. That party, probably in an attempt similar to yours, campaigned with the slogan “No person is illegal”. My boyfriend mocked the slogan by saying the party was saying that “illegals” are not people. That struck the chord more with me than the actual campaign slogan.

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