Like a lot of questions in life, this one doesn’t have a clear right or wrong answer. But there are arguments as to why some terms might be better than others.
In the United States, the most common terms you’re likely to hear are: illegal immigrants, illegal aliens, illegals, undocumented immigrants, and unauthorized immigrants. You may also see terms like “irregular migrants” and “clandestine migrants” in academic writing and reports by organizations like the OECD, World Bank, and International Organization for Migration (IOM). All of these terms refer to people who have illegally entered a foreign country and/or who are illegally working in a foreign country. (“Irregular migrants” is actually a more encompassing term that also refers to victims of human trafficking and forced migration).
A growing number of people argue that it is dehumanizing and offensive to use the adjective “illegal” to describe a person or the noun “illegals” to refer to a group of people. The terms “illegals” and “illegal aliens” are seen as particularly dehumanizing. The argument here is that acts or behavior are what’s illegal—not the human beings committing those acts or engaging in those behaviors. For this reason, many people believe that it is okay to refer to the act of migrating illegally as “illegal immigration,” but wrong to call the person who committed that act an “illegal immigrant” or an “illegal.”
Despite these arguments, the term “illegal immigrant” remains the most common term used in the U.S. political discourse. I use the term illegal immigrant from time to time in my writing for the sake of clarity.
To avoid the word “illegal,” some people use the term “undocumented immigrant.” The adjective “undocumented” can be interpreted a couple ways. One is with reference to the immigrant’s lack of proper immigration papers or work documents. He or she does not have a visa, therefore he or she is an immigrant without documents—i.e., an undocumented immigrant. A less common interpretation, but one that I subscribe to, refers to the fact that the immigrant’s entry into the country was not recorded or documented by any official or institution. Because his or her entry was not documented by anyone, he or she is an undocumented immigrant.
Some people oppose the term “undocumented immigrant” on the grounds that it is a politically correct phrase that distracts from that fact that the people in question came here or work here illegally.
I think that opponents of the word “illegal” and opponents of the phrase “undocumented immigrant” both make good points. When it comes down to it, use of “illegal” and “undocumented” may cause your audience to think you are making a value judgment, even when you don’t mean to. To keep things neutral, more and more reputable organizations, like the Pew Hispanic Center, are using the term “unauthorized immigrant.” Although gaining in popularity, unauthorized immigrant still isn’t a term that I see a lot.
At least for the foreseeable future, most people will use the term or terms that suit their purposes. As a researcher, I will say “undocumented immigrants” when I find myself frustrated by the lack of reliable data on immigration. I may say “illegal immigrants” when I want to reach the largest audience possible. More and more, I find myself saying “unauthorized immigrants” as it evolves into the value-neutral alternative. Someone who is staunchly opposed to illegal immigration will probably continue to use terms like “illegals” and “illegal aliens” to emphasize the illegality of an act they oppose. People who are sympathetic to those who migrate illegally will probably continue to use “undocumented” to emphasize the human element involved in illegal immigration. And the IOM will probably continue to use the term “irregular migrants,” which I sometimes think is the most value-neutral and useful term of all (although it’s just about never used in the United States).
What do you think about all of this?