A Note on “Alien” Terminology in the Public Discussion of Immigration and Immigrants

Yesterday, USA Today’s Emily Bazar led an interesting discussion between representatives of NUMBERS USA, a group seeking to reduce immigration, and National Council for La Raza, which seeks to protect the rights of immigrants, about the appropriate use of terminology when referring to undocumented immigrants, “aliens”, “illegal aliens”, immigrants, human beings, etc.  A video of the discussion — debate really — can be viewed by clicking th elink above.

Just to be clear, the omnibus federal immigration statute, the Immigration & Nationality Act, does not generally employ the term “illegal alien.”  When that phrase is used in the public context, it usually betrays a particular view about undocumented immigration in the speaker.  Guss what that view might be?   “Illegal aliens” has grown to be a deeply pejorative term in the public discourse. 

Today, “illegal aliens” often is used as code for the stereotypical undocumented Mexican immigrant and sometimes even persons of Mexican ancestry generally.  Importantly, the best available estimates are that roughly 60 percent of the undocumented immigrant population is from Mexico (and thus 40 percent is not).

in contrast to “illegal alien,” the term “alien” is effectively the DNA of the INA, with the statute defining the admissions and removal criteria for “aliens,” i.e., persons who are not U.S. citizens or nationals.  Still, the use of the term “alien’ in public discussions of immigration tends to have a distancing and dehumanizing impact.  To paraphrase  Alexander Bickel, it is far easier to deny rights to a noncitizen than a person. 

For discussion of the terminological question in some detail, see  Mai Ngai, Impossible Subjects:  Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (2004) and Kevin R. Johnson, Aliens and the U.S. Immigration Laws:  The Social and Legal Construction of Nonpersons, 28 U. Miami Inter-American Law Review 263 (1996-97).

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24 Responses

  1. Yeah, and it’s easier to kick a burglar out of your house, than an “undocumented resident”.

    “Undocumented” is a deliberate ephemism, we’re not talking about people who had their wallets nicked, so they can’t produce their papers. We’re talking about people who don’t have documents, or have fraudulent documents, BECAUSE THEY’RE HERE ILLEGALLY. Much as you might wish it, that’s not a point the public is in a mood to blow off.

  2. Brittancus says:

    Don’t let down your guard on E-Verify?


    It’s our phone calls that can derail any thoughts of another AMNESTY? Fill their eardrums with public rage not to undermine E-Verify. WE WANT A PERMANENT FOR EVERYONE WHO COLLECTS A PAY CHECK! Today! As never before they are reacting and listening to millions of patriotic Americans and pro-sovereignty groups, in which E-Verify have become a solid foundation to identify and remove foreign labor. Taxpayers money should be spent on infrastructure, our own weak and sick, our veterans who are homeless, our unemployed and those who real immigrants who respect our laws. Until the inception of the Internet, Americans and legal residents had no way of communicating between ourselves. Now we can? Now we should use every means possible to elaborate, that we are well and truly seething, because they are siding with the globalists, money people, open border subversives.

    We are not bigots because we love our country and don’t want to turn into a third world society. We do not want to live in an OVERPOPULATED, congested land. We have been paying for years–illegal immigrant’s support, instead of the procurers–the businesses that employ them. Our charged voices have set-off a chain reaction amongst the Washington political masses, because we actually turned the tables on the anti-sovereignty, pro-illegal immigration organizations. They are building the original border fence as originally planned, not faulty short-cuts? But we have enemies who have ignored their oath of office and plan to weaken any amendments. As with the 1986 immigration AMNESTY law that was never broken, but disrupted and never enforced. Now they want another AMNESTY or immigration reform package.

    It was the politicians who caused the problem of between 13 to 20 million settling here and unable to support themselves. Lawmakers can now stew in their own juices, because we refuse–absolutely refuse, to be sold on another path to citizenship, as it will be yet another higher tax burden on taxpayers. California being just one of many Sanctuary States–that has produced massive budget deficit problems, cause by the huge influx of illegal poor living on state and federal welfare.

    Senators and Representatives aides are unhappy with the constant bombardment from millions of Americans, but they are the bridge that must be crossed everyday? No respite, no retreat? Keep up the pressure, till their ears bleed? Keep up the invaluable rumblings in the beltway at 202-224-3121 THAT THE POPULATION IS MAD AND NOT GOING TO TAKE IT ANYMORE! Learn who your enemy is and who your friends at NUMBERSUSA, JUDICIALWATCH, CAPSWEB, HERITAGE FOUNDATION & AMERICANPATROL

    ATTENTION! Because of the massive payments to illegal immigrants in California, their is a petition. Google–TAXPAYER REVOLUTION. Very few newspapers will mention this activist petition. When is the American flag going to fly again in the once Golden state?

  3. JP says:

    Personally, I thought “Delaware Bob’s” novel combination of the term “illegal aliens” and ALL CAPS in the first comment to Gerard Magliocca’s post below was incredibly convincing. (/sarcasm)

    I haven’t watched the video at the link, but I’m curious whether there was any consensus as to an appropriate neutral term.

    “Undocumented worker” seems to be used most commonly, followed by “undocumented immigrant,” but both are problematic for use as a broad descriptor. (Not everyone is a “worker,” and not everyone is an “immigrant” [to the extent that term implies an intent to permanently relocate]. There are also valid objections to the term “undocumented,” though they are usually easily dismissed because they are raised by people using the equally [or more] objectionable term “illegal”).

    My understanding is that the term used in judicial opinions (and so presumably in the statute) is “unauthorized alien,” but that is problematic if you view “alien” as pejorative.

    By the way, the worst pejorative (and most absurd) term that I commonly hear is simply “illegals.”

  4. mahtso says:

    Sorry I don’t have a citation, but about 6 months ago a California Court of Appeals dealt with this issue (in a footnote) in a case about in-state tuition. As I recall, that Court concluded that “illegal alien” was not inappropriate considering that the alternatives, such as “person who is in the country illegally,” were too cumbersome and recognizing that other short-hand phrases did not accurately describe the status of the people at issue (because it was undisputed that they were in the country illegally.)

  5. PG says:

    I think “undocumented alien” is the closest approximation to the variety of statuses that we’re trying to describe.

    As JP notes, many of the people labeled “illegal immigrants” are not actually trying to relocate to the U.S. permanently, only to slip into the country, work for a while and make enough money to go back home. We’ve seen this in the large number who have left the U.S. during the recession, which is not the behavior one would expect for people who want to live in the U.S. permanently.

    And typically, Brett ignores the significant number of people whose *entry* to the U.S. is legal — who come over with the approval of the government on tourist, student, temporary worker and other visas — and whose *continued presence* in the U.S. is what lacks a proper document. Often many of these people are in the process of obtaining such a document: an extension of the visa, a new kind of visa, asylum, etc.

    Of course, if one intends to speak only of those who never had any documents, then “illegal entrant” seems to me the most precise term, just as “visa over-stayer” captures most of the rest.

  6. mahtso says:

    Here is the California case


    and the footnote

    Defendants prefer the term “undocumented immigrants.” However, defendants do not cite any authoritative definition of the term and do not support their assertion that the terms “undocumented immigrant” and “illegal alien” are interchangeable. We consider the term “illegal alien” less ambiguous. Thus, under federal law, an “alien” is “any person not a citizen or national of the United States.” (8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(3).) A “national of the United States” means a U.S. citizen or a noncitizen who owes permanent allegiance to the United States. (8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(22).) Under federal law, “immigrant” means every alien except those classified by federal law as nonimmigrant aliens. (8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(15).) “Nonimmigrant aliens” are, in general, temporary visitors to the United States, such as diplomats and students who have no intention of abandoning their residence in a foreign country. (8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(15)(F), (G); Elkins v. Moreno (1978) 435 U.S. 647, 664-665 [55 L.Ed.2d 614, 627-628] [under pre-1996 law, held the question whether nonimmigrant aliens could become domiciliaries of Maryland for purposes of in-state college tuition was a matter of state law].) The federal statutes at issue in this appeal refer to “alien[s] who [are] not lawfully present in the United States.” (8 U.S.C. §§ 1621(d), 1623.) In place of the cumbersome phrase “alien[s] who [are] not lawfully present,” we shall use the term “illegal aliens.”

  7. Piper says:

    Many, even most illegal aliens have “documents.” They have passports, home-country ID cards, U.S. State driver’s licenses or ID cards, “matricula consular” cards, credit cards… what they lack are (unexpired) visas. That is, they lack the legal right to remain within the U.S. (unless they’ve applied for asylum or surrendered to Federal authorities or some such).

    So “undocumented alien” is misleading; as others have pointed out, it’s a euphemism intended and utilized to confuse the issue.

    If “illegal alien” seems too pejorative, substitute “invader.”

  8. PG says:


    “Illegal alien” simply doesn’t make sense: how does the adjective “illegal” accurately modify the noun “alien”? An alien cannot be “legal” or “illegal,” because the word simply means “a resident born in or belonging to another country who has not acquired citizenship by naturalization (distinguished from citizen ).”

    This has been said ad nauseum, but I’ll say it again as the point evidently hasn’t gotten across: A person cannot be illegal; only her actions can be. So you would have to use something like “illegally-present alien” (for the visa overstayers) or “illegally-entering alien” (for the rest).

    These are perfectly acceptable terms and I would be happy to see them become the standard vocabulary. They use English grammar properly by having the word “illegal” become an adverb (“illegally”) that modifies an adjective (“present”) or verb (“entering”), and the combined phrase then modifies the noun. An alien cannot be illegal, but she can be illegally-present in the U.S.

    Unfortunately, you and your allies like the idea of derogating another human as being herself “illegal,” so grammatically sound terms won’t become common among you.

  9. mahtso says:

    To PG: it is an idiom. (Although I suspect you knew that.)

  10. Piper says:

    PG– must we stop using the term “snow cone” for “confection of shaved or crushed ice with flavored syrup?”

    “Illegal alien” is just a common (and perfectly reasonable) euphonious neologism (apparently) derived from the rather awkward terms (“illegally-present alien, illegally-enter[ed] alien”) you suggested.

    Your sciolistic* grammatical nitpicking seems to be nothing more than political barking and yapping.

    *“Illegal” may even be used as a noun.

  11. Richard Lee says:

    “Illegal” is was and always will be considered an adjective in standard English

    “Undocumented immigrant” is NOT a cumbersome phrase.

    And let’s tell it like it is: I’ve never heard anyone defend the pejorative use of “illegal alien” except those who “don’t want our country to become a third world country,” and who subscribe to all the other anti-immigrant myths perpetrated by the Center for Immigration Studies, the mouthpiece of FAIR, the richest and most persistent anti-immigrant lobbying group. Both FAIR and CIS were founded by John Tanton who has documented ties to white supremacist and hate groups. See Southern Poverty Law Center reports for some of Tanton’s pronouncements. And by the way, Numbers USA and at least a dozen other organizations are offshoots of FAIR with equally vicious anti-immigrant pronouncements. Let’s face it,86% of the voting American public favor humane and just immigration reform. We need an end to the myths and vitriol and violence. We need to learn how to live together as a nation. We need a workable solution to the broken immigration system which reflects our national values and moves us all forward together!

  12. ParatrooperJJ says:

    La Raza is a terrorist orgization dedicated to the conquering of the American Southwest for Mexico.

  13. Bill McDonald says:

    At a recent conference at Georgetown Law Center, Senator Schumer argued that if democrats want to get comprehensive immigration reform enacted they must stop using the term “undocumented immigrant” because it conveys a message to the general public that the government is not serious about controlling illegal immigration and the public will not accept the reform. Here are his words.

    “Yes we can…. pass compre immig reform. …. What is needed in the bill to get passed…. is 7 key principles… Americans support legal immigration. The concept should be to be pro-legal imigration and anti-illegal immigration.
    1. illegal immigration is wrong! The goal must be to dramatically curtain future flows. And we have to use the words “illegal immigrants.” When we use “undocumenteds” (as democratics do) we convey to the people that we are not serious about “illegal aliens”. Americans won’t accept reform if the don’t believe the government is serious about it.
    The public can smell when you are not serious about illegal immigration.
    I have met with the pro-immigrant advocates and told them don’t say say “undocumented” say “illegal immigrant”.

  14. ““Undocumented immigrant” is NOT a cumbersome phrase.”

    The objection isn’t that it’s cumbersome. The objection is that it deliberately elides the most crucial characteristic of the group in question: That they’re here ILLEGALLY. “Illegal alien” is no more cumbersome than “undocumented immigrant”, and perfectly describes the group in question: Aliens whose presence here is illegal.

    The phrase “undocumented immigrant” is not meant to illuminate, but to obscure. I can understand your wanting to throw up a smoke screen, when public opinion is so strongly and persistently against you, but that’s all you’re doing, and you shouldn’t expect anybody to cooperate with you in your effort to confuse things.

  15. JP says:


    Your comment illustrates precisely my objection to the term “illegal alien.” In your view, the unlawfulness of their residency within the borders of the U.S. is “the most crucial characteristic of the group in question.”

    I believe that your view (even if shared by much of the voting public) is statist, immoral, and xenophobic.

    Unauthorized aliens (to use a term no one has voiced serious objection to) are, as a group, notable for perseverance, entrepreneurship, the courage to flee repressive and corrupt states, and work ethic. (In this sense not unlike some of my–and probably your–own ancestors, who emigrated to the U.S. under more liberal laws.) I would appreciate any explanation of how the violation of an arbitrary and counter-productive law becomes “the most crucial characteristic” of the people you are referring to.

  16. mahtso says:

    “Unauthorized aliens (to use a term no one has voiced serious objection to) are, as a group, notable for perseverance, entrepreneurship, the courage to flee repressive and corrupt states, and work ethic.”

    Certainly many do fit this description. But many others do not. I suggest people read the Arizona Republic for accounts of how savagely the human smugglers, many of whom are not in the country legally, treat these people. The Republic has reported that this smuggling is a $1.6 to 1.7 billion per year business, which money must then be laundered.

    In the abstract, I, like many others, applaud those who try to improve their condition, but the adverse consequences stemming from these illegal entries into the U.S. are too great (for me) to ignore (regardless of how those entering the country illegally are denominated).

  17. “I would appreciate any explanation of how the violation of an arbitrary and counter-productive law becomes “the most crucial characteristic” of the people you are referring to.”

    It’s what distinguishes them from aliens who happen to be here *legally*. Who also exibit pluck and perserverance, but substantially less contempt for our laws.

  18. JohannaC says:

    I do have an objection to the term “aunothorized alien” and that is that the word “unauthorized” might imply that the certain foreign national does not have authorization from the U.S. government to be in the United States. Now, many people who are in the process of obtaining a visa/permit/card do not have authorization to be in the United States yet, and some cases may take several years to get such authorization, but that does not mean they lack proper documentation or that they are here ilegally.

    So, we will just have to look for a more adequate term than that of “unauthorized alien/person” since it is not completely accurate.

  19. Delaware Bob says:

    They are “ILLEGAL ALIENS”!…and you may find this hard to believe, but their Anchor babies, that the American taxpayer pays for, are also “ILLEGAL ALIENS”.

    I for one, am sick and tired of these ILLEGAL ALIENS snubbing their nose at our immigration laws and the many other laws of this Country. If our Federal Government can not ENFORCE our immigration laws, and get these ILLEGAL ALIENS out of this Country, then let the States do it! One way or another, an end has to come to this illegal immigration, and not with AMNESTY! Amnesty will only encourage more ILLEGAL ALIENS to invade our Country and reward those who broke our laws and raped the American taxpayer in many ways…depressing our wages, taking our jobs, overwhelming our schools with their ILLEGAL ALIEN children, driving without a license or car insurance, all the crime from stolen identities to rape, drugs and everything else.

    It’s time for ZERO TOLERENCE with these ILLEGAL ALIENS. It’s time for them get out of this Country and back in their own Country where they belong. When we get rid of the ILLEGAL ALIENS, we will get rid of all the problems that go with them. That is a fact!

  20. DI says:

    The duplicity of the people who want to avoid the word “illegal” astounds me. Take, for instance, this comment from PG: “….Brett ignores the significant number of people whose *entry* to the U.S. is legal — who come over with the approval of the government on tourist, student, temporary worker and other visas — and whose *continued presence* in the U.S. is what lacks a proper document.”

    A person who overstayed their legal presence here has a short window of time in which to leave. If they don’t, their continued presence is ILLEGAL … and the fact that they’re trying to obtain some other kind of legal status doesn’t matter.

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