As noted earlier, Lou Dobbs is upset that more media outlets aren’t using the term “illegal alien,” instead often opting for the term “undocumented immigrant.” Dobbs suggests a conspiracy by the media. But the fact is that critics of the media don’t consistently use “illegal alien,” either. The term often gets shortened to merely “illegals.” (See, e.g., Wash Times, “Bush amnesty blamed for rise in illegals“; Wash Times, “Senate illegals bill near complete“; WorldNetDaily, “Arizona county helping illegals, critic charges“; KTAR, “Employer sanctions for hiring illegals stuck in Senate“; and the lovely article “Illegals go home” that has run in various outlets.)

Supporters of this term defend its use, pointing out that it carries some degree of descriptive accuracy. People labeled as “illegals” have indeed violated a law; therefore, suggest users, such people may accurately be called illegals. Is this reasonable?

This argument is not unreasonable on the surface. It is strongest if we accord similar treatment to other groups. That is, the reasonableness of this approach depends on whether we typically make one’s violation of law a primary or sole descriptor.

For example, if the principle is to be applied consistently, Kenneth Lay should be described as “an illegal” because of his conviction for a crime. Scooter Libby should similarly be called “an illegal.” In fact, one might expect proponents of the usage of illegals (in the context of immigration) to support this broader usage as well. After all, they seem quite concerned that a person’s status vis-a-vis law be used as that person’s primary or only descriptor.

The potential application of the “illegals” label is even broader, really. Immigration critics don’t confine their use to people actually convicted of crimes. Anyone who violates immigration laws — whether convicted or not — is subject to the term. For consistency’s sake, the same should apply to people who violate any other laws.

So both Kenneth Lay (convicted) and other unconvicted violators of corporate law should be called illegals. Let’s apply the term, consistently, to anyone who has ever violated a law. Anyone who has violated a law at any point — speeders, jaywalkers, late tax filers — should henceforth be called “an illegal.” Under this definition, I’m an illegal, and you probably are, too. (The term probably covers most Americans.)

Meanwhile, those who haven’t ever broken any law should be rewarded by being called “legals” in general parlance. Let’s raise compliance with law above race, religion, gender, or age, as one’s primary identifying attribute. I’m sure that Dobbs and other proponents of the “illegals” usage will be happy to extend it to its logical limit — why wouldn’t they?

I have only one other question, though — what exactly should we call the inconsistent folk who support the apparently racist approach of labeling immigration violators as “illegals,” but see no need to use that label on any violators of other laws?


I suggest we call such people, “bastards.”

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9 Responses

  1. What happened to “love the sinner, hate the sin”? These people’s actions are illegal. The people themselves are not.

  2. Vasu says:

    That is funny! Really well put 🙂

  3. Ray says:

    And I thought immigration was a complicated issue, thank you for simplifying it. People who want the country’s immigration laws to be enforced are racist bastards. Thank you for your scholarly contribution to this important ongoing national debate.

  4. clerk in DE says:

    This is a stupid post. We have all sorts of pejorative terms for people who violate laws, regardless of whether they’ve been convicted.

    Are the terms criminal, pedophile, thief, tax cheat, sex offender, terrorist, etc., familiar at all?

    Perhaps you should give some thought to why people might use commission of a crime (regardless of conviction) as a primary descriptor. We don’t say describe people as “jaywalkers” because most people don’t care about jaywalking or think that the fact that someone has jaywalked in the past says anything useful about that person.

    If someone is an illegal immigrant, that person has no legal right to be where he is, and some people find that fact interesting. There is something admittedly demeaning about the term, and people can certainly disagree about whether there is anything morally reprehensible about illegal immigration, but to say that using the word is racist per se is just silly.

  5. Kaimi says:


    I’ll grant that there are non-racist reasons why one might use the term. They just don’t seem to be very consistent or coherent. Not that every reason for every action has to be consistent — people act out of habit, or just because they don’t think through every action. But when we think it through, it seems like a strange usage.

    As you rightly point out, there are many terms that label violators of laws or norms — terms like thief, tax cheat, sex offender, and so on.

    However, these are relatively narrow terms, and they signal specific violations of specific social norms.

    In contrast, the term “illegal,” on the face of it, really encompasses all illegality.

    We can see the inconsistency in usage when we compare each word’s usage as a noun or an adjective:

    Perform a thieving action, and you will be labeled a thief. Perform a murdering action, and you will be labeled a murderer.

    In general, each label applies to the entire group. That is, all people who perform thieving actions may rightly be labeled thieves, and all people who perform murdering actions may rightly be labeled murderers. (Individuals may quibble or offer excuses or justifications, but the noun is essentially an exact match to the adjective.) This even applies to the broader term ‘criminal’: If you perform a criminal act, you are a criminal, and all people who perform criminal acts may accurately be labeled criminals.

    This noun-adjective correspondence does _not_ carry over to the usage of the word “illegal.” That is, it is _false_ to say that all people who perform illegal actions are labeled as illegals. There’s a real lexical inconsistency in the way the term is used: _All_ thieving actions will make one a thief, but apparently only _some_ illegal actions will make one an illegal.

    The question then becomes, which illegal actions are so singled out, and why?

    If we were to start out, tabula rasa, and say, “let’s suppose that there is some category of illegal actions for which we’d like to use the term ‘illegal'” — what kinds of actions might we choose to so stigmatize? We might choose egregious and awful acts: murder, rape, violent assault.

    Weirdly, though, current usage stigmatizes violators of an administrative law (immigration laws are not even criminal), who are given the label “illegals.”

    I’ve suggested racism as one reason for this approach. Simple inertia may be another reason. If you’ve got other suggestions as to why immigration law violators receive this lexically unusual treatment, I’d be happy to hear them.


    Are you suggesting that there is a perfect correlation between people who want the country’s immigration laws to be enforced, and people who use the term “illegals” as a descriptive noun? I’ve discussed one group only.

  6. AYY says:

    People who have violated the criminal law and have been convicted can be called “criminals”, or something similar, for example, “felons”. Being called a criminal or a felon suggests something worse than being an “illegal.” “Illegals” would not have racial connotations to me because it can apply to anyone of any racial group. It’s probably just a convenient shorthand.

    As to your larger point, I don’t see any legitimate reason for going out of our way to find new ways to find racism in places where no one would have thought it existed. If you have to make a tendentious argument that a word is racist before anyone can see any racial aspect to it, then it’s not being used in a racist way.

  7. Adeez says:

    Hey Kaimi! Or should I say Professor Wenger. Glad to stumble upon you at this site. We worked together with the one-of-a-kind Jack B. Man, I miss that place!

    Anyway, kudos to you for posting this. I always thought the same thing: calling an immigrant who might’ve come here in violation of immigration law an “illegal” reeks of bigotry. As you astutely pointed-out, by that logic, we’re all illegals.

    Anti-immigration rhetoric aside, calling otherwise decent people who risk their well-being in desparate search for a better life “illegals” is a way of dehumanizing them. Why, they’re not people, they’re ILLEGALS!

  8. James says:

    Even by law professor standards, this seems rather obtuse. “Illegals”, in this context, is simply a shortened verson of illegal aliens or illegal immigrants. It’s hardly unusual for headlines to be shortened, and the articles make it perfectly clear what is meant by “illegal”.

    Do you have anything even half-way intelligent to say about the illegal immigration issue?

  9. rogrdodgr says:

    I bet a judge would call them a convicted felon!