What term should we use to describe the 11 million or so people who have entered or reside within the U.S. without official government authorization? “Illegal immigrants,” “undocumented immigrants,” “unauthorized immigrants,” or something else entirely? The labels we use to refer to different classes of individuals are not merely neutral descriptors but often implicitly come with various associations or value judgments, which can, in turn, frame and influence political debates.
Conservatives tend to favor the term “illegal immigrant” and argue that it is the most precise because, unlike other terms such as “undocumented immigrant,” it underscores the legal violation that took place. However, critics of the phrase “illegal immigrant,” such as the Drop the I-Word campaign contend that “illegal immigrant” is actually imprecise or, at the very least, misleading. “Illegal” blankets all cases with connotations of criminality but different cases are treated differently under the law. For instance, living in the U.S. without authorization, such as overstaying a visa but entering the country legally, is a civil but not a criminal offense. “Illegal” also carries with it a finality that obscures the fluidity of immigration status, which can be adjusted based on different individual circumstances.
In 2013, the Associated Press (AP) changed its stylebook to no longer sanction the use of “illegal immigrant” on the ground that “illegal” should only describe an action but not a person. This represented an important shift due to the many newspapers that follow the AP’s style recommendations. Activists and immigrant advocates, of course, have long proclaimed, “No person is illegal.” The AP saw this change as consistent with its general practice of rejecting labels (for instance, saying someone is “diagnosed with schizophrenia” rather than “schizophrenic”). Instead of “illegal immigrant,” the AP suggests “living in or entering a country illegally” or “without legal permission.” But “illegal immigration” is still accepted by the AP insofar as this phrase does not describe people as “illegal.”
More recently, in April 2021, the Biden administration instructed U.S. immigration enforcement agencies to replace the term "illegal alien" (which is used throughout U.S. immigration law) with "undocumented noncitizen."
Even more damning is the critique that the term “illegal immigrant” functions as a racist dog whistle that buoys the idea that America is or should be a white nation. U.S. immigration law, from the Chinese Exclusion Act to the national origins quota system, has historically played a role in constructing categories of racial difference that have served to exclude those not considered white or white enough from the U.S. polis. As José Mendoza put it, “the notion of illegality plays a large role in constructing, perpetuating, and solidifying whiteness … illegality, like race, has historically functioned as a signifier of nonwhiteness and thereby marks entire communities (e.g., Latino and Asian communities) as nonwhite.” The ways in which racist ideologies are bound up with U.S. immigration policies are unfortunately not just historical artifacts but continue to this day, as is evidenced by former President Trump’s comments referring to Haiti, El Salvador, and African countries as “shithole countries.”
If “illegal immigrant” is imprecise and racially problematic, what term should be used instead? Pro-immigrant liberals often prefer the term “undocumented immigrant.” The nonprofit Define American, in its criticism of phrases such as “illegal immigrant” and “illegal alien,” recommends “undocumented American.” But “undocumented immigrant” has its shortcomings too. For many conservatives, “undocumented immigrant” smacks of euphemism, which makes it seem as though the matter were simply a clerical or administrative error—as if some document was misplaced or not properly issued. And “undocumented immigrant” is itself imprecise since an individual may have many documents even if they did not enter the country legally or do not have federal authorization to continue residing in the country. New York City residents, for instance, can be issued an identification card regardless of their immigration status. And “undocumented American,” which presumably is meant to challenge the idea that only citizens are Americans, could also be problematically imposing a label on people that they do not necessarily endorse themselves—after all, not everyone identifies or wants to be seen as an American.
Perhaps better than “undocumented immigrant” is “unauthorized immigrant,” which makes it clear that the issue is not merely the lack of documentation (even if not having the right papers can indeed be a serious problem for many people in different situations) but the lack of government authorization to enter or reside in the country. Though “unauthorized” does not carry with it the negative connotations of criminality associated with “illegal,” “unauthorized” is not necessarily neutral or free from value judgments itself.
The word “authority,” for instance, is ambiguous between an entity who in fact has the power to make some determination and an entity who should have (i.e. is legitimately entitled to or has the right to) such power. When we say, “The DMV is the authority that decides who is issued a driver’s license,” we mean authority in the first descriptive sense. If we say, “Women should be the authorities on whether or not abortions are legal,” we mean authority in the second value-laden sense. Oftentimes we use “authority” in both senses. If we say, “Parents are the authorities when it comes to the well-being of their children,” we might mean both that parents do in fact have the power to decide the well-being of their children and that they should have this power. Sometimes it may not be clear what sense of “authority” is being used, or “authority” may be used in one sense but carry with it connotations of the other sense or be (mis) interpreted in that way.
The ambiguities and value-laden connotations of authority can consequently import into the term “unauthorized immigrant.” If there are unauthorized immigrants, then are there authorized immigrants as well? Does “unauthorized immigrant” imply that those immigrants should be unauthorized? What kind of authorization do they lack? Who decided they are unauthorized? Who has the right to decide this and why? Perhaps there should be no unauthorized immigrants at all! Or perhaps more deeply, there should not even be a distinction between immigrants who are authorized and immigrants who are unauthorized.
The broader lesson that I think should be drawn from this discussion is that the terms we use to refer to different groups of people are not merely neutral or impartial descriptions. Instead, the very words we use to understand our social and political world can not only influence political debates and opinions but may already carry with them implicit ethical judgments about how to structure and change our world. But this doesn’t mean that we should just give up on describing our world accurately or abandon critical investigation of the words we use as just overblown and overly sensitive “political correctness.” Rather it means that how we see our world goes hand in hand with what our values are. How we should describe different classes of immigrants will depend partly and more broadly on what we envision justice in immigration to be.
Originally published February, 2021. Updated January, 2022 to include terminology changes by the Biden Adminstration.