Undocumented or Illegal?

When people who have immigrated to another country through methods other than the official legal system are discussed, we hear quite a few words bandied about: “illegal,” “undocumented,” and “alien” just to name a few. The terms are often used interchangeably, but are these terms interchangeable? On NPR’s, Tell Me More, Professor Kevin Johnson, Dean of the law school at the University of California at Davis says no.

“I fear that illegal immigrant – the term – is a loaded term. It is not as loaded as some of its predecessors like illegal alien or wetback, but it still is a loaded term,” says Johnson. He continues by pointing out that drivers who violate driving laws aren’t called illegal drivers and children who work in violation of the child labor laws aren’t called illegal children. Johnson says that “illegal immigrant” creates bad connotations from the outset by making them appear more unlawful than they actually are. He also claims that it’s easier to treat “dehumanized” illegal immigrants in a harsh way than it is to treat people in general in a harsh way.

In her first opinion on the high court, Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor used the term “undocumented immigrant” to refer to individuals present in the U.S. without proper authorization. According to the New York Times, it was the first time the term had been used in a Supreme Court case and it caused an uproar. Those in opposition to the term “undocumented” say that many immigrants use expired visas or fraudulent documents and thus have documents, just not valid ones. They also believe the term is too rosy and masks the fact that these immigrants have circumvented the legal system.

Johnson, on the other hand, sees nothing wrong with the term “undocumented immigrant” and uses it himself. “I try to use technically accurate terms that are known and used in common parlance in law…You’ll find nothing in a law review article talking about illegal immigrant, any reputable one anyway.” In addition, he uses the term “non-citizens,” or refers to them as people here in violation of the immigration laws.

Homeland, a fascinating documentary that airs this summer on PBS and examines immigration from the perspective of Midwestern states, uses the term “undocumented” rather than “illegal,” and the Society of Professional Journalists decided this past fall to urge newsrooms to do the same. The National Association of Hispanic Journalists also promotes the term “undocumented” saying that the term “illegal” is insulting. Nevertheless, the AP Stylebook, contends that “illegal immigrant” is the correct term. Their entry reads that: “it is the preferred term, not illegal alien or undocumented worker. Do not use the shortened term an illegal or illegals.”

One is considered too harsh and the other too rosy. What term do you believe should be used? Does it even matter?


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