Which terminology to use? ‘Illegal’ or ‘undocumented’?


What’s in a name?

When it comes to the immigration debate, quite a lot.

The terminology one chooses to use in describing people who have entered the country illegally or remained in it without proper documentation says a lot about where one comes down on things like border enforcement, deportations and a pathway to citizenship.

In general, those who favor more aggressive border enforcement, stepped up deportations and no pathway to citizenship (or a very costly, time-consuming one) tend to use the terms illegal immigrant or illegal alien.

Ira Mehlman, media director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, explains why here:

“Illegal alien is a legal term. It doesn’t mean you came from Mars. Illegal alien is the proper legal term. The advocates for illegal aliens have come up with all kinds of euphemisms to make what’s been done sound kind of innocuous – undocumented immigrant, undocumented worker. Those who are not in the country legally are illegal aliens.”

As Mehlman noted, those who back limited, prioritized deportations and an easier pathway to citizenship tend to use the terms undocumented immigrant, undocumented worker or undocumented resident.

Afifa Khaliq, a Palm Beach County immigration activist, explains why here:

“The logic behind that is if you get a speeding ticket or commit any other offense you are still a ‘legal’ human. When we use the term illegal we are effectively saying that the person’s very existence as a human is unlawful. ‘Illegal Immigrant’ was the term first used in 1939 by the British towards the Jews fleeing Nazis and entering Palestine without authorization. We ‘the activists’ believe that no human being is ‘illegal.’ The unauthorized residents just by overstaying or lack of documentation do not commit a criminal offense. They are subjected to deportation because of ‘civil administrative procedure,’ not because they have broken a law. The Supreme Court has also noted where Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, said that, ‘As a general rule, it is not a crime for a removable alien to remain present in the United States.’ Justice Kennedy also noted that the removal of a person is a civil matter. So the activist community uses the word Undocumented Immigrants instead of the term illegal.”

In this story and the ones that will follow, The Palm Beach Post will use terms such as illegal immigrant and undocumented immigrant or unauthorized worker interchangeably where appropriate. The Post will not use the term “illegal aliens” because while it may be a technical term used in legal documents, it is not common American parlance. The terminology used by The Post is not meant to convey support for one set of policies or another.


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