Julian Abagond: The term “illegal immigrant”

by , under Julian Abagond

By Julian Abagond

The term “illegal immigrant” (1930s- ) means an undocumented immigrant, one without papers to stay in the country. The older term was ”illegal alien”, common in English in the 1970s and 1980s, rare in American news stories since 2003.

An illegal immigrant can mean someone who:

  1. crossed the border illegally,
  2. overstayed a student or tourist visa,
  3. was brought to the country as a child,
  4. is waiting for a green card,


It was first applied to Jews in Palestine in the 1930s. In America it first appeared in the Republican platform in 1986, in the Democratic one in 1996.

Since the 1980s there has been a push to get rid of it: actions are illegal, not people. Huffington Post got rid of it in 2008. The Miami Herald and MSNBC no longer use it. Then, on April 2nd 2013, the Associated Press (AP) stylebook got rid of it, saying in part:

illegal immigration Entering or residing in a country in violation of civil or criminal law. Except in direct quotes essential to the story, use illegal only to refer to an action, not a person: illegal immigration, but not illegal immigrant. Acceptable variations include living in or entering a country illegally or without legal permission.

That is huge: most American news reporters and editors follow the AP stylebook. The Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, two of the country’s biggest newspapers, are now thinking of getting rid of the term.

Why get rid of it:

  1. It makes racism respectable. It dehumanizes not just the 11 million people in America who are without papers, who are mostly people of colour (3 million are black), but 52 million Latinos, whom many assume to be undocumented even though most are American citizens. It has become a slur: Just before Marcelo Lucero was killed in a hate crime on Long Island he was called a “fucking illegal”. Yet, as Touré points out, no one calls Martha Stewart an “illegal business woman” – even though she was found guilty of insider trading in a court of law.
  2. It frames the debate on immigration: It pins the blame on immigrants, not those who employ them and often take advantage of them, whom no one ever seems to call “illegal employers”. Nor does it blame the American government’s immigration policy, which is at least 11 million cases behind in meeting the country’s labour needs. It makes it seem like the answer is to punish immigrants – even though some are undocumented through no fault of their own. It makes police raids on Latino neighbourhoods seem reasonable – as well as racial profiling (Arizona SB 1070). It makes it easy for Republicans to kill reasonable reform by calling it “amnesty for illegals”, as they did in 2006. And, worst of all, it makes it seem like undocumented immigrants should have no rights at all.

Linguist John McWhorter of Columbia University says in ten years “undocumented immigrant” will seem just as dismissive as “illegal immigrant”.

Linguist George Lakoff of UC Berkeley says that in debating and making laws framing is huge: words matter.

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Read original story here.

 This piece was reprinted by Migrant Tales with permission.




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