Stop saying “illegal”

Saying “illegal(s),” “illegal immigrant(s),” and that pesky double whammy, “illegal alien” (which “Others” a person not once, but twice), only serves to reinforce negative stereotypes and dehumanize people.  Furthermore, “illegal [insert-noun-here]” has become synonomous with “Mexican,” so let’s just stop saying “illegal,” shall we?

via AlterNet:

By repeating the phrase “illegal immigrants,” the media and politicians have created a misleading framework to talk about immigration[…]

The repeated use of the term “illegal immigrants” is leading to all sorts of policies created to stop them. Many of them were repeated in the debates. More border fences. Prohibiting driver’s licenses. Some want to stop their kids from attending neighborhood elementary schools.

But the phrase “illegal immigrant” is misleading. There’s a grain of truth, but the emphasis is only selectively applied — it’s misapplied — we don’t call speeders “illegal drivers” or people who jaywalk “illegals.” And that selective application to immigrants is harmful.

The National Association of Hispanic Journalists lays it all out for us:


A word used by the U.S. government to describe a foreign-born person who is not a citizen by naturalization or parentage. People who enter the United States legally are called resident aliens and they carry alien registration cards also known as “green cards,” because they used to be green.

While Webster’s first definition of the term “alien” is in accordance with the government’s interpretation, the dictionary also includes other, darker, meanings for the word, such as “a non-terrestrial being,” “strange,” “not belonging to one,” “adverse,” “hostile.” And the Encyclopedia Britannica points out that “in early times, the tendency was to look upon the alien as an enemy and to treat him as a criminal or an outlaw.” It is not surprising then that in 1798, in anticipation of a possible war with France, the U.S. Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which restricted “aliens” and curtailed press freedoms. By 1800 the laws had been repealed or had expired but they still cast a negative shadow over the word.

In modern times, with science-fiction growing in popularity, “alien” has come to mean a creature from outer space, and is considered pejorative by most immigrants.

Illegal alien

Avoid. Alternative terms are “undocumented worker,” or “undocumented immigrant.” The pertinent federal agencies use this term for individuals who do not have documents to show they can legally visit, work or live here. Many find the term offensive and dehumanizing because it criminalizes the person rather than the actual act of illegally entering or residing in the United States. The term does not give an accurate description of a person’s conditional U.S. status, but rather demeans an individual by describing them as an alien. At the 1994 Unity convention, the four minority journalism groups – NAHJ, Asian American Journalists Association, Native American Journalists Association and National Association of Black Journalists – issued the following statement on this term: “Except in direct quotations, do not use the phrase illegal alien or the word alien, in copy or in headlines, to refer to citizens of a foreign country who have come to the U.S. with no documents to show that they are legally entitled to visit, work or live here. Such terms are considered pejorative not only by those to whom they are applied but by many people of the same ethnic and national backgrounds who are in the U.S. legally.”

Illegal immigrant

While many national news outlets use the term “illegal immigrant,” this handbook calls for the discussion and re-evaluation of its use. Instead of using illegal immigrant, alternative labels recommended are “undocumented worker” or “undocumented immigrant.” Illegal immigrant is a term used to describe the immigration status of people who do not have the federal documentation to show they are legally entitled to work, visit or live here. People who are undocumented according to federal authorities do not have the proper visas to be in the United States legally. Many enter the country illegally, but a large number of this group initially had valid visas, but did not return to their native countries when their visas expired. Some former students fall into the latter category. The term criminalizes the person rather than the actual act of illegally entering or residing in the United States without federal documents. Terms such as illegal alien or illegal immigrant can often be used pejoratively in common parlance and can pack a powerful emotional wallop for those on the receiving end. Instead, use undocumented immigrant or undocumented worker, both of which are terms that convey the same descriptive information without carrying the psychological baggage. Avoid using illegal(s) as a noun.


Avoid. Alternative terms are “undocumented immigrant” or “undocumented worker.” This term has been used to describe the immigration status of people who do not have the federal documentation to show they are legally entitled to work, visit or live here. The term criminalizes the person rather than the actual act of illegally entering, residing in the U.S. without documents.


Similar to reporting about a person’s race, mentioning that a person is a first-generation immigrant could be used to provide readers or viewers with background information, but the relevancy of using the term should be made apparent in the story. Also, the status of undocumented workers should be discussed between source, reporter and editors because of the risk of deportation.

Undocumented immigrant

Preferred term to “illegal immigrant,” “illegal(s)” and “illegal alien.” This term describes the immigration status of people who do not have the federal documentation to show they are legally entitled to work, visit or live here. Some Latinos say this term more accurately describes people who are in the United States illegally because the word points out that they are undocumented, but does not dehumanize them in the manner that such terms as “aliens” and “illegals” do.

Undocumented worker

Preferred term to “illegal alien,” “illegal immigrant,” or “illegal(s).” This term describes the immigration status of people who do not have the federal documentation to show they are legally entitled to work, visit or live here.

You can take the ColorLines pledge to stop saying “illegal” here. Watch the Drop the I-Word campaign video:

24 Responses to Stop saying “illegal”

  1. legal american says:

    I think this PC nonsense has gone too far. You’re the same person who gets offended if someone says “Merry Xmas” instead of happy holidays. Illegal alien is EXACTLY the right phrase to describe someone in a country illegally. Unfortunately you are unable or unwilling to accept this as a crime. This kind of thinking is an insult to those of us who came to America legally. I seriously doubt you’re capable of listening to any viewpoint outside your own and will therefore stop here.

  2. Michael says:

    In the english language the word, illegal, is defined as: not according to or authorized by law. The word alien is defined as: a foreign-born resident who has not been naturalized and is still a subject or citizen of a foreign country. There is nothing racist or derogatory about the term. Its a neutral definition. We call them illegal aliens because they have entered this country without complying with our immigration laws. They then compound that illegal act by using false documents, another illegal act.

    What makes America what it is and a beacon to so many is that we are a nation based on the rule of law. Thomas Paine said that laws set by the government are what allow us to live in peace with one another. In the simplest sense, a law is nothing more than a rule that we set for ourselves and agree that if it is applied to one of us, it must be applied to all of us. Its the fair thing to do. Anything less would lead to chaos in society. Its just common sense that you can’t have one segment of society ignoring the rules we set for ourselves.

    Of course there is always someone who considers themselves special, the exception to the rule. And will offer a whole host of rationales to prove their point, but, as a society we cannot get caught up in these rationales as beguiling as they maybe. That’s why we set up a system of justice to make sure that these laws are applied fairly.

    If you are here without documentation and you don’t liked being called an illegal alien tough. It is what it is! Get in line like everybody else. As they say in Mexico to Anglo Norte Americanos: gringos ir a casa!

  3. We must address this problem in situ. It is not possible to somehow round up all the affected individuals, export them, and start over. It is also not feasible to attempt to apply our current laws, processes, and procedures on these people. Further, to think that strengthening our current system to stem the inflow and that the current in-country residents will somehow assimilate into our society is ridiculous.
    The problem must be addressed with an affordable and actionable solution. Take a look at the commission report “Immigration in America — What’s to Be Done?” developed by Trigon-International. This report presents a realistic solution that is affordable and addresses the situation as it presently exists. Works for other countries as well.

  4. djmixtzin says:

    Hola Texican@….

    i like the page….
    i wanted to refer you to my wifes page too….

  5. kipito says:

    @legal american & michael
    entering or staying in the United States without a current visa is an administrative violation, not a criminal violation (felony). people found to be without a visa are not punished with a prison sentence, they are simply deported. Yes, there is a law, but it is not a crime (technically similar to a parking ticket).

    so compared to actual crimes (drunk driving, arson, murder), overstaying a visa is morally AND legally a minor issue. i respect people who work hard and pay taxes – yes, millions in taxes is automatically deducted from their paychecks, the difference is you can get a refund but they can’t. the point is, why do you insist on calling immigrants “illegal,” but you never call the people who commit actual crimes “illegal”? am i an illegal driver because i broke a traffic law last week?

    by calling yourself “legal american,” are you claiming that you never did anything illegal? you pick and choose when you use this word, that’s why i question your motivation.

    exception: if an immigrant lies to a homeland security agent or forges documents, it could be an actual crime. but the act of immigrating is not the crime – if anything, this would make the person an “illegal forger.” of course, this could only apply after they have been found guilty in court – because as you know, the law respects everyone’s (citizen or non-citizen) right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. generally, anytime an immigrant is found to have committed a crime like this, that immigrant is deported. so the “illegal forgers” are not even in the united states, because they were sent back already.

    to me, this issue is not about playing word police. it is about describing someone accurately and respectifully.

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  7. lookingforsomethingtofind says:

    I think the phrase Illegal Immigrant is appropiate, because they are immigrants here, illegally. It’s become a loaded term, not because the wording is wrong, but misused. Immigrant itself I’d argue has a connation of poverty as supposed to ex-pat. Like wise illegal alien is fine, because it is one of the uses of the word alien. Undocumented isn’t right, because it doen’t any breach in the law. I personally think laws about immigration should be changed, but as they are what they are, they have to be followed. Although the companies who hire said people and pay them next to nothing, are as guilty of breaking the law, if not more so than the workers themselvs, although these coporations face no punishment.

    Also to kipto by being in this nation they are breaking the law, so they are illegal americans. Just like if I was driving drunk, at the time I was driving, not before of after, I would be a illegal driver. If they are deported and come back here legally, they are legal Americans, like any other citizen. So I’d argue that the term illegal works, because it refers to people who are actively commiting a crime, during their stay here.

  8. Vince Burns says:

    I think bank robbers should be referred to as “undocumented cash withdrawers”, this group has longed suffered from the pain this phrase has inflicted.

  9. Melissa says:

    Are you referring to bank robbers who are citizens (as most bank robbers are)? Because then why would they be called undocumented?

    No, I think your logic dictates that they too be called “illegals” since they’re doing something illegal.

  10. Vince Burns says:

    To answer your question Melissa, I think when we say a person is an “undocumented” alien, we mean they don’t have documents proving that they are citizens.

    I was making the observation that someone robbing a bank would not have documentation proving they were authorized to withdraw money. In both instances a crime is being committed?

    I’ll grant you there is a huge difference between robbing a bank and sneaking into the country.

    It’s a thought provoking post though.

  11. Jack says:

    It is a free country. I will call them what I darn well please. I am ashamed that another Texan (so called) is promoting this PC idiocy.

  12. Melissa says:

    And I’m ashamed that another Texan (so-called) isn’t.

  13. Kate says:

    Excuse you. How is she a “so-called” Texan? Is it her liberalism you find un-Texan, her ethnicity, or both? I guess I and my entire Tejano family aren’t really Texans then, either.

  14. Jack says:

    I don’t give a flip about her ethnicity. Her attitude toward the First Amendment is decidedly un-Texan. And F*** you both.

  15. Melissa says:

    Great, now this is a First Amendment issue? Funny how “First Amendment rights” only apply to people like Real Texan Jack, and not to people who call out nativist bullshit. (Notice, too, how I have not infringed on his freedom of speech by deleting his dumbass comments.)

    And for god’s sake, re-read the damn Constitution. Congress can’t enact laws telling you to shut the fuck up. A blogger, on her own blog? Can. So shut the fuck up already, Jack.

  16. Leesee says:

    The last comment is the best comment.

  17. Catherine says:

    I enjoyed this article!

  18. The U.S. government doesn’t use the word ‘illegal’. The U.S. government uses the word E.W.I. As in ‘Entry Without Inspection’ or if through a legal entry (airport/land border) it uses ‘overstay.’ Illegal is accurate, since those here without the legal right to be here are just that—-‘illegal.’ You may not like truths or facts, but it is what it is, young lady.

  19. Joe B., says:

    Or let’s pledge not even to use the “C” word: Why should people who commit crimes be called criminals? A person who committed rape is definitely dehumanized by being called a rapist, and probably has a civil liberties complaint. Let’s stop saying the “R” word. But that’s the point, isn’t it? We *want* criminals labeled. We don’t want to sympathize and endorse what they’ve done.

    Then it’s merely a subjective matter of degree. At some point, you may cry BS. But you, too, have a line. Surely you call murderers murderers? So while I don’t think most people would afford the same sympathy to a rapist they would have to a person who knowingly, and with intention, flaunted the immigration laws of this country, I sure don’t begrudge the person who wants to bitchslap an immigrant or immigrant sympathyzer for whining that they are offended at being labeled for their criminal act. Wear your orange and drag your leg irons with dignity, stiff upper lip — you undocumented person you.

  20. taogreg says:

    Immigrant – someone who has been granted unrestricted rights to live and work in the US. These people are not immigrants. Alien – a person who is not a US citizen or a US national. These people are aliens. Illegal – not according to or authorized by law . These people have crossed the border and are in the county illegally. illegal alien is a factually correct term. You have no chance of solving a problem if you can’t even allow people to talk about it in accurate terms.

  21. Melissa says:

    Okay, now let’s try using an actual dictionary:

    Undocumented: (North American) Not having the appropriate legal document or: license

    Immigrant: a person who migrates to a different country, usually for permanent residence.

    Alien: a resident born in or belonging to another country who had not acquired citizenship by naturalization.

    For all intents and purposes, plain old “alien” would suffice, but it’s often used as a pejorative … gotta throw in that ILLEGAL and mostly use it in reference to brown people. There is a very long and ugly history attached to that phrase. So no thank you. I’ll stick to the less dehumanizing “undocumented immigrants.”

  22. Crissy says:

    This whole issue seems to be born of ignorance and political manipulation. The term illegal immigrant does not show up in the USCIS INA act 101. The term alien is clearly defined as any person not a citizen or national of the United States. The term immigrant is defined as every alien except an alien who is under the jurisdiction of a foreign government recognized by the US. Basically those working for embassy or alien crew that are working on aircraft, fishing boats, and other vessels. The term illegal immigrant and illegal alien is mostly used by journalist and politicians to gain favor for their cause by playing on the emotions and lack of education of citizens. Both pro and con sides of the issue use this language and give it power by making the issue much larger and unnecessary.
    To that the average American person does not mean harm by using the term illegal immigrant, it is what they are hearing. It has become a part of society much the way the word “selfie” has. The only reason that it seems to have more direction towards Mexican aliens it that is what is in the news. We also have populations of “undocumented workers” from Cuba, China, and various other countries, but they are not the ones protesting publicly. The common saying the squeaky wheel get the grease, right now it is persons from Mexico legally or not that are making the most noise and getting the most attention.

  23. Sunny miller says:

    It’s simple, many people snuck in to the United States and that is illeagal, so they are illeagal and suck this country dry, they do not contribute, they bring deceases, ignorants, don’t pay taxes. That is illeagal!!! The immigrants these days want to change this country, not speak English….gangs are here because the melting pot does not work anymore. Radical Islamic people want to cut off heads if your a Christian, Mexicans shit in the garbage can… It’s not the way it is in america! I have been around lots of Mexicans, ex husband married one. She attacked me because she’s ignorant.

  24. Melissa says:

    LOLOL…Dude. Get back to me when YOU speak English.

    – a Mexican English teacher

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