How should we refer to people who migrate illegally?


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?


  1. Adriana says:

    Great site! I am currently writing a research paper on undocumented immigrant women victims of domestic violence. I found this site very informative and helpful, thank you for putting all these information together!

  2. Diana A. says:

    I believe the words “illegal” and “alien” are particularly used in the U.S. American context, at least, much more than it is used in other developed countries with high rates of immigration. For instance, in Spain they refer to immigrants simply as ‘immigrants’, and also the word ‘extranjeros’ (foreigners) is often used. In Italy, many immigrants without documents are also called “stranieri” (foreigners), and are often addressed as ‘extracomunitari’ (or as someone that’s outside of the european community). Though, there are some racial differences between natives and foreigners, there is no such anti-immigration meaning to it.

    It makes no sense, to me, that there is a negative sentiment toward ‘illegal’ immigration in the U.S., especially because this is a country that has experienced different waves of immigration from almost all countries in the world. In other words, U.S. Americans are a mix of people whom once were immigrants, so it’s almost strange that many (not all, of course) are reacting in such way.

    And I agree, the word ‘illegal’ is sometimes necessary to be used in order to make a clear point, but I always use it between single quotation marks.

    ¡Great posts Prof. Germano!

  3. Nathan. says:

    More than the word “illegal” I find the word “alien” that is often used, much more derogatory and dehumanizing. Comparing and exaggerating people to outer world space creatures??? Although I can see both sides to the word “illegal” I still personally prefer “undocumented”. Now a days I think that when people think of migrants they automatically think of “illegals” and then all the negative connotations (drugs, violence, gangs) which simply is not true. Corporate media helps distort and manipulate what we think about immigrants and how they are depicted. Above all….WE ARE ALL HUMANS. Too much is spent categorizing and judging people by “what they are” instead of learning and understanding who they are.

  4. Lloyd says:

    There are a lot of individuals who seem to have no reservations about using extreme measures to prevent people from entering our country illegally. I would think that those US citizens that have a voracious drug appetite are encouraging people to enter illegally in order to sate their desire for drugs. I never recall hearing this issue discussed when people are talking about rounding up 12 million or so by any means possible to expel them from the US.

  5. Gladys says:

    The way we call people have a lot to do with what we think of them. Therefore, I think people (especially those in charge of writing about these things) have a responsibility to use these terms carefully because they definitely have an impact on our perception. I have a serious problem with the word “alien” and as a child of two immigrants I was confused when I heard the term, especially since I knew that it applied to my parents.

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