Why Do We Use the Word Illegal?


Our immigration policies are controversial. The topics we are debating may be valid; but, the words we are using in our discussions need to change. We supposedly have 11 million people in the United States with questionable documentation. We refer to this group of people as “illegal aliens” or “illegal immigrants. “ These terms are inhumane and are just another way that the United States divides itself between the “haves” and the “have nots.”

As immigration lawyer Shahid Haque-Hausrath explains, when a person is arrested in the United States, our criminal justice system protects his or her innocence until proven guilty. This is why we say a person “allegedly” committed a crime before his or her trial. When we speak of immigrants as “illegal,” we pre-assign guilt to them. We have no idea their status and sometimes they don’t either. The term “illegal alien” implies a level of wrongdoing that is equivalent to criminal behavior. It also implies that this group of people is undesirable to live in the United States. As Eli Wiesel the Nobel Peace Prize winner asks, “human beings can be beautiful or more beautiful… but how can they be illegal?”

Our federal immigration laws are very different from the connotation that the terms “illegal alien” and/or “illegal immigrants” imply. Our federal immigration laws say that a person in the United States without proper documentation is considered to have committed a federal misdemeanor infraction, under our civil not our criminal statutes. Many anti-immigration proponents have tried to criminalize undocumented workers, but their efforts have failed. We as a society continue to recognize that we violate basic human rights if we criminalize people fleeing their countries in search of a safer and better life for themselves and their families.

At this point, I am not validating whether this group of people should rightfully get to remain in the United States. I am asking the question why we impose such derogatory and inaccurate terms to their already challenging circumstances. Can’t we think of a better term to describe a person who may have entered the United States with proper documentation and is now desperate to remain with family members who still have their necessary papers? Wouldn’t we show our own humanity by stopping the usage of the terms “illegal alien” and “illegal immigrant?” I argue that the term undocumented immigrant more specifically describes the status of this group of people. Before we dismiss them as criminals, we should think twice about the circumstances that brought them to the United States and how complex our immigration system must feel to them.


6 thoughts on “Why Do We Use the Word Illegal?

  1. Alec – I love this post! We give benefit of the doubt to sports heroes, hollywood stars, company moguls; we cast judgement so lightly on folks who have no voice to defend themselves. Maybe even a small change in how we describe them will have a ripple effect on how we think about their plight, as we compare their lives to ours.

    1. What a thoughtful post, Alec! Yes, the word “illegal” evokes negative emotions, whereas the word “undocumented” is more accurate. Even the former governor of Florida, Jeb Bush, who is a Republican and whose party has tended to be opposed to most immigration reforms, recently said that it is not a crime to try and come to the U.S. Rather, it is an “act of love.” Wow! Talk about a change in views on immigration!

  2. Alec – thanks for writing this post. I think you picked up on something not talked enough in debates over immigration – the language and words we use. The language used to describe a person or a group of people impacts how they are viewed by the public, and it is unfair to degrade people in order to make a point or sway public opinion. I read in another article, “Humans are not illegal. Only their actions can be illegal.” You are right, there are much better ways to refer to immigrants in the US without proper documentation. I look forward to reading your next post!

  3. Well said Alec! I am guilty of using this phrase too. It is such a common term and so I have never really thought about how hurtful it must feel and the judgement it places on those struggling to find a home. Thank you for raising my awareness to this offensive language.

  4. It is important to point out that our language couches how we respond. I think the important thing to remember is that we are all in this thing together.

    And as long as we can get Sofia Vergera and Selma Hayek, I am all for immigration!!!

  5. I, too, thank you for raising my awareness of these offensive terms. I am reminded of Hurricane Katrina when so many people were displaced. The media was calling these people “refugees” until someone finally said it was an offensive and prejudice term. Those who have immigrated to this country are immigrants, plain and simple; but to call them illegal or illegal aliens is truly offensive.

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