The Way We Speak About Unauthorized Immigrants Matters

Here's what's wrong with the language of "illegal immigration."
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<p>Immigration activists rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington April 18, 2016.</p>

Immigration activists rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington April 18, 2016.

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

How we talk about illegal immigration is important, so it shouldn’t surprise us that, collectively, we’ve come with many different ways of describing those people who immigrate illegally to the United States — ways which reflect our personal biases and beliefs. If we take a closer look at some of these terms, maybe we can determine what it is we’re trying to accomplish with these varying labels and whether we really want them rolling off our tongues.

“Illegal Immigrant”

One of the most common responses to any argument made in defense of “illegal immigrants” — not their status even but their simple existence or humanity — is to highlight that first half of the term, the word “illegal.”

Try focusing on the first word, ILLEGAL. They are criminals by definition! Why is this so hard for the freaking liberals to understand?!— comment on Facebook
Illegal Immigrants = Immigrated Illegally by sneaking over the border. Cased closed, the mystery is solved. — comment on Twitter
Illegal the opposite from legal… means there breaking the law to me simple and clear — comment on Twitter

That’s a mere sampling of many responses from individuals on social media, who believe they’ve pulled a trump card (no pun intended) by pointing out that all illegal immigrants are criminal in nature simply due to their presence. So it seems like a case-closed exercise for many folks — even if you’re just making the fact-based argument that illegal immigration is actually in decline or that illegal immigrants actually less likely to be violent criminals, despite what the Donald J. Trumps of the world may say.

“What part of ‘illegal’ don’t you get?”

It’s worth stating explicitly that having sympathy for “illegal immigrants” is not the same as encouraging or even condoning illegal immigration. Defending such immigrants against racist stereotypes isn’t congruent with open borders and no penalties for breaking the law. Saying those things are all equal is simply inaccurate, rhetorical sleight of hand. It’s often presented as what we call a straw man argument. Donald Trump, along with many right-wing politicians and pundits and commenters roll out this tired trick daily.

All this aside, however, referring to all such immigrants as “illegal immigrants” also happens to be lawfully untrue.

What do I mean “lawfully untrue”? Well, factually, only 60 percent of “illegal immigrants” arrive here illegally — e.g. by avoiding border patrols or fabricating documents. The remaining 40 percent come here legally, but overstay their time here. What’s the difference, you say? The difference is the U.S. government does not consider the latter criminal behavior. That’s right. It’s a civil offense, not a criminal offense. So the argument that “all illegal immigrants are criminals” is actually, factually incorrect. This is the difference between what is referred to as “improper entry” versus “unlawful presence.” So a broad term like “illegal immigrant” doesn’t serve us well because it conflates two meaningfully different groups of people — one of which has engaged in no criminal activity.

Additionally, if the former action is still considered a crime, it’s a crime punishable by no more than 6 months in prison and a maximum $250 fine. For comparison, a first time possession charge for heroin at the federal level is 1 year in prison and a $5,000 fine. A typical state charge for the sale or distribution of heroin can get you up to life in prison (more often 10–15 years) and a $100,000 fine. So our judicial system apparently considers either of those offenses far more serious crimes than crossing the United States border illegally.

Justice Anthony Kennedy underlined this distinction back in June, 2012 when he wrote the majority opinion for the ruling on Arizona’s draconian immigration law, SB 1070. He concluded that “As a general rule, it is not a crime for a movable alien to remain in the United States.”

Later that year, the Pulitzer-winner reporter Jose Antonio Vargas summed up his thoughts on our use of the terms “illegal” and “illegal immigrant” in a brief but poignant piece, which also called for the media to stop using those words. He pointed out that The Miami Herald stopped using the term, replacing it with “undocumented immigrant” as far back as 2003. So did The Huffington Post in 2008. And the San Antonio Express-News in 2010. Since then the media has increasingly backed away from the term “illegal immigrant.” The AP stopped using it to describe individuals in 2013, though it allowed the term “illegal immigration” as a subject. So did the L.A. Times. Then NBC and ABC News followed. However, the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and CBS continued to allow the term, though in some cases with some reservations.

<p>Screenshot from Frank Luntz’s leaked 2005 memo to the GOP, advising the party on illegal immigration</p>

Screenshot from Frank Luntz’s leaked 2005 memo to the GOP, advising the party on illegal immigration

Further complicating the issue, Frank Luntz famously politicized the term “illegal immigrant” in a 2005 memo to Republicans, advising them to use the term in order to reinforce the primary guiding rule of the document’s prescriptions for language: “Always differentiate LEGAL from illegal immigration.”

Who’s Frank Luntz? He’s the same GOP strategist who popularized the deeply deceptive term “death tax” in the early 00s, which the GOP — and Donald Trump — enjoy using to this day. Presumably, he appreciated the label precisely because of its veneer of accuracy since, as he says in his book Words that Work, “The label used to describe those who enter America illegally determines the attitudes people have toward them.”

Interestingly enough, in that memo Luntz also explicitly advised against using one particular term: “illegals.” As we’ll see, the party hasn’t exactly followed his advice on using this term. In fact, it’s their new favorite slur.

“No human being is illegal.” — Elie Wiesel


Shortening “illegal immigrant” to “illegal” is even more questionable. It may seem a logical move. It appeals to our penchant for short-hand communication. Save three syllables. Save 10 characters in a tweet. And, divorced from context, “illegal” sounds like a perfectly accurate, clinical, almost empirical descriptor, doesn’t it?

It certainly doesn’t sound as damaging or in humane as many of the other slurs lobbied against immigrants in the United States. “Mucker” for the Irish in Boston, for example. Or “green nigger.” “Wop” for Italian immigrants, which is sometimes said to stand for “without papers” or “without passport.” (It does not.) “Wetback” or “berry picker” for Mexican immigrant workers. “Hunky” or “bohunk” for Polish and other immigrants from Eastern Europe. “Kike” for Jewish immigrants, which alludes to signing their immigration papers with an “O” (“kikel” is Yiddish for “circle”) instead of an “X,” which resembled a cross. (We should note this is only a partial listing of such slurs.)

And immigrants have long been dehumanized en masse via slurs, which insinuate they are dirty, diseased, or some sort of infestation. You’ll still hear people smear immigrants this way, referring to them as “pests,” “vermin,” “rats,” “cockroaches,” or “swarms.” (Again, presume this is a partial listing.)

<p>Fox News repeatedly uses the term “illegals” both on its TV shows and its website</p>

Fox News repeatedly uses the term “illegals” both on its TV shows and its website

That’s why “illegal” has become so popular. Because it is a slur that comes with an excuse. It’s the word it’s safe to use when you can’t use those more traditional pejorative terms. It bears the patina of respectability and supposed judicial accuracy, but still operates to reduce a group of human beings to an “other” or an enemy. And so it’s the one term Fox News commentators and white supremacists and Donald Trump and your racist uncle now believe they can use with impunity.

They savor the legitimacy of “illegal” while reducing a human being to an adjective. True, the word has been used so much it’s become a noun. In fact — and perhaps surprisingly — you can trace its use as a noun to describe immigrants to as far back to the 193os, when linguist Geoffrey Nunberg says the British transformed the word into noun “to describe Jews who entered Palestine without official permission.” He says it’s “been used ever since as a way of reducing individuals to their infractions.” In 1949, the journalist Meyer Levin made a film called “The Illegals” about concentration camp survivors wandering Europe looking for a home. It depicted their suffering and showed how they were even forced to return to Germany. A 1960 book also described how the British termed Jewish survivors “illegals,” who would be removed and shipped off to Cyprus. So the term doesn’t exactly bear a proud pedigree, and its evolution from adjective to noun betrays its point and its power: To reduce a human being to their immigrant status and to vilify them as an “other.”

After all, do we refer to anyone else as an “illegal”? Rapists? Murderers? Grifters? Counterfeiters? Drug dealers? Tax cheats? Ponzi schemers? Nope.

As for cries of political correctness, of course, that should be a concern. But when words are freighted with negative connotations, that’s an issue, too. If referring to all illegal immigrants as “dreamers” would be political correct (and referring to all unauthorized immigrants this way is essentially a fictional example), the referring to them as “illegals” is just the opposite. Accuracy isn’t political correctness, however, and that’s worth striving for.

In a 2007 editorial piece for The New York Times, immigration reporter Lawrence Downes nails the issue with this word:

It pollutes the debate. It blocks solutions. Used dispassionately and technically, there is nothing wrong with it. Used as an irreducible modifier for a large and largely decent group of people, it is badly damaging. And as a code word for racial and ethnic hatred, it is detestable.

The term seems especially egregious when the undocumented immigrants are typically coming here because American businesses are actively courting them. If we’re honest, collectively as a nation, we seek to hire such people. This is an inarguable fact. Whatever outrage some share at their presence, it’s apparently outweighed by the desire for many American businesses to bring these immigrant workers here and to employ them.

And we don’t call those businesses “illegals,” do we?

In short then? “Illegal” isn’t a synonym for a human being. It’s a gussied up slur.

“Illegal alien”

“Alien” could hardly be a word more calculated to “otherize.” Used since the 18th century both in legislation and by the courts, “alien” means “of or belonging to others” in Latin. Not such a big deal?

Well, Geoffrey Nunberg has written on this word, too. He points out that The New Republic surveyed people about the word back in 1920 and their responses were “uniformly negative.” They described an “alien” as “a person who is hostile to this country,” “a person on the opposite side,” “an enemy from a foreign land.” Of course, we also use this word to describe extraterrestrials, who we often perceive as likely to be strange, terrifying and often violent. The New York Times stylebook even justified its use of “illegal immigrant” by maintaining that “illegal alien” was the more “sinister sounding” expression.

Tracing its origins in United States law also reveals some disturbing twists. It’s first federal use here came when we developed legislation to determine who could become a citizen. Who were these lucky, select aliens? Only those who could be described as a “free white person.” Yes, that was actually codified in our 1790 Alien Naturalization Act enacted by Congress in 1790.

Nunberg also points out that the term “alien is far more likely to be used to describe Mexicans and Central Americans than Europeans.” He says, “The tens of thousands of Irish and Poles who are in the country illegally are almost always referred to as ‘immigrants’ not ‘aliens.’”

He eventually suggests that when we say “alien,” what we really mean is “brown people who snuck in.”

We can be grateful our use of the term continues to decline.

If we’re trying to be fair but accurate, what terms might we use then? Keeping in mind that language changes, so the connotations of specific words or phrases or words can be fluid over time, here are a couple of terms, which both media professionals and immigrant advocates have settled upon. The journalist and immigration rights activist Jose Antonio Vargas suggests using either of them as opposed to any term including the word “illegal.”

“Undocumented immigrant”

Many conservatives complain this term is politically correct as it allegedly intentionally obscures the fact that such immigrants are here illegally. It’s considered euphemistic, a point the New York Times was still arguing in 2012. It implies, some believe, that all such immigrants lack is the right paperwork and that no illegality is involved. With that in mind, “undocumented immigrants” might best be used for those immigrants who entered the United States legally, but allowed their Visas to expire, since the government doesn’t consider them to have committed a criminal action.

On the other hand, as detailed above, you could argue that categorizing an immigrant as illegal for a one-time action — perhaps perpetrated many years ago — is not just dehumanizing but it’s also inaccurate. The opposition might argue that these immigrants live in a continuous state of illegality. That seems very black and white to them. But is it? What about the children of these immigrants? Or children born to one “illegal immigrant” and an American citizen? What about the fact that our government has typically tolerated their presence and that companies knowingly employ them? What about those who have already lived here for decades and have lived otherwise immaculate lives from a law-abiding perspective? You can only paint this situation as black and white if you’re willfully trying to oversimplify it. Or if you’re simply ignorant of all these nuances.

“Unauthorized immigrant”

The different between “unauthorized” and “undocumented” immigrant may not seem obvious at first, but there is a distinction. It allows for the possibility of an “illegal” status without assuming illegality and, more importantly, doesn’t carry the baggage of that other, increasingly loaded term.

Writing in the New Yorker last year, Jeffrey Toobin responded to critics of his earlier writing by agreeing that he could no longer use the term “illegal immigrant” when writing about immigration policy. He concluded that although his intention was to “mute the political content of the language” and to be “straightforward.” He weighed his intention against the argument that the term isn’t always accurate and the fact that the term is increasingly perceived as a pejorative He concluded that the term was in fact more disruptive than he had realized, potentially drawing too much attention to itself. His ultimate decision? He would no longer use the term. His preferred description then? He believe that “unauthorized” is a more accurate term than “undocumented” or “illegal.”

In a New York Times editorial back in 2007, Lawrence Downes also concluded that “unauthorized” was a better term than “illegal” or even “undocumented,” since it contains “the possibility of reparation and atonement” and allows “for a sensible reaction proportional to the offense.

Good enough for me.

Some thoughts on my own use of the term “illegal immigrant”

Toobin’s path is similar to my own.

So if that the term “illegal immigrant” is arguably problematic, why did I ever use it in my writing? A fair question. Like Toobin, I used it partly because it seemed technically correct (turns out, it isn’t always) and I didn’t intend any personal animus towards these particular immigrants. But to be fully transparent, there was a second, strategic reason.

Although I don’t like the term myself, I used the term intentionally because if you omit any mention of illegality, some people will dismiss a entire piece solely on the belief that if you use the term “undocumented worker,” then you’re being PC and dishonest. That you’re soft-pedaling the issue. (Arguably, I’m not going to win those folks over, as you can see in the comments my previous pieces.) However, I’ve always committed to never using the term “illegal” on its own as I do believe it’s a slur. I’ve also consciously avoided the term “illegal alien.” I understood that “illegal immigrant” was arguably similarly thorny but I thought it allowed for some legitimate distinction. Now, I think “unauthorized” the better term. It actually allows for that distinction while avoiding unnecessary — and unkind — baggage. And though I understand the motivation for using the term “undocumented,” it seems to elide some nuances — at least when used universally. The answer may be to use either of these terms, depending on the specific situation. To aim for accuracy that way. I’m happy to listen to those closest to and most affected by the subject — people like Jose — for ongoing input on the subject.

Otherwise, aiming for nuance and accuracy — as well as humanity — certainly seems the better route, rather than galumphing along, haplessly dispensing harmful generalizations like those the term “illegal” ensures.

Many thanks to those thoughtful readers who have offered me their input on this subject.

A version of this piece originally appeared on Medium.

Follow Robert Stribley on Twitter.

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