‘Undocumented Immigrant’ Versus ‘Illegal Alien’: Lawmakers Debate What to Call Migrants

A protestor at a 2017 Women's March holds a sign written in Spanish that says "No human being is illegal."

A protestor at a 2017 Women's March holds a sign written in Spanish that says "No human being is illegal." AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell


Connecting state and local government leaders

Proposals at the city, state, and national level seek to remove official references to “illegal aliens” in favor of the term “undocumented immigrant.”

Across the country, lawmakers at all levels of the government are reconsidering the official use of a previously common phrase: illegal alien. Supporters of a change to phrases like “undocumented immigrant” or “unauthorized immigrant” argue that government is behind the times in updating its language, while opponents say that lawmakers are overreacting as part of a “politically correct” culture.

A bill introduced in Colorado last week would remove mentions of “illegal alien” in state laws and replace them with “undocumented immigrant.” Introduced by state Rep. Susan Lontine, a Democrat, the legislation has sparked discussions about whether the phrase “illegal alien” is dehumanizing or even legally accurate. 

Lontine did not return a request for comment, but told the Denver Post that language is a matter of respect. “I think words matter and we shouldn’t be calling people illegal aliens,” Lontine said. “People aren’t illegal.”

Cristian Solano-Córdova of the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition said his organization supports the bill. "Any move away from dehumanizing language targeting our community members in Colorado is always welcome,” he said. “We continue needing real protections for our community and changing this word in the law is a good first step."

The proposal in Colorado is hardly alone. Across the country, lawmakers have tried to pry the phrase “illegal alien” from state statutes, city codes, and federal immigration laws. The New York City Council in January held a hearing on legislation that would replace “alien” with “noncitizen” in city documents and laws. The U.S. House is considering a similar proposal by Texas Rep. Joaquin Castro to replace the words “alien” and “illegal alien” with “foreign national” and “undocumented foreign national” in the federal immigration code. 

“Words matter,” Castro said in a statement introducing the legislation. “It’s vital that we respect the dignity of immigrants fleeing violence and prosecution in our language. The words ‘alien’ and ‘illegal alien’ work to demonize and dehumanize the migrant community. They should have no place in our government’s description of human beings.”

Some of these efforts have already proven successful. California in 2015 passed a law to remove the word “alien” from its labor code. After pressure from a public education campaign called “Drop the I-Word,” individual organizations have also removed the term. In 2013, the Associated Press, which publishes a widely used style guide for journalists, announced that it was banning the use of the term illegal to describe a person, saying that “illegal should describe only an action, such as living in or immigrating to a country illegally.”

Other initiatives have seen short-lived success. In 2016, the Library of Congress announced it would remove “illegal alien” from subject headings in favor of “noncitizens.” A few months later, however, House Republicans introduced legislation designed to force the Library of Congress to reinstate the term and the Library backed off the change.

Action on this issue hasn’t fallen strictly along party lines. Some conservative groups, such as the Hispanic Leadership Network, have urged lawmakers to stop using the phrase. "When talking about immigrants: Do use 'undocumented immigrant' when referring to those here without documentation," the organization wrote in a 2013 letter to Congress. "Please consider these tonally sensitive messaging points as you discuss immigration, regardless of your position."

But the Trump administration has fully embraced the phrase illegal alien. In 2018, the Justice Department issued a memo to federal prosecutors forbidding them from using the phrase “undocumented” because it is “not based in U.S. code and should not be used to describe someone’s illegal presence in the country.”

The arguments for keeping the phrase “illegal alien” are often built on precedent. Writing for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, legal scholar Hans A. von Spakovsky said that “undocumented immigrant” is a “made-up” and “politically correct” term that obfuscates federal law. “Precision in the law is a vital principle, since the exact words used in statutes, regulations, contracts, guidance documents, and policy statements can significantly affect how they are applied and interpreted,” von Spakovsky said. “Government lawyers in particular have an obligation to use the correct language of the federal statutes they are sworn to uphold and enforce.”

Scholars like von Spakovsky argue that because federal immigration law uses the word “alien” it is still the most accurate phrase. In 2015, U.S. District Court Judge Andrew Hanen also wrote in a decision that he “understands that there is a certain segment of the population that finds the phrase ‘illegal alien’ offensive. The court uses this term because it is the term used by the Supreme Court in its latest pronouncement pertaining to this area of the law.”

Still, some others argue that referring to a person as “illegal” is legally inaccurate much of the time. Federal immigration law classifies unauthorized residency in the U.S. as a civil violation, not a criminal one. 

Otto Santa Ana, a sociolinguist at UCLA, said that the word “illegal” distorts our perception of immigrants. “When you say ‘illegal immigrant,’ you set up a concept of legality in your head and that is the primary qualification that people then use to evaluate immigrants. It makes them equivalent to felons,” he said. “We don’t call a jaywalker an ‘illegal pedestrian.’ When people commit civic infractions, it doesn’t make them ‘illegal.’”

Some studies have found that the phrase “illegal alien” is associated with an increased perception of threat and invokes a greater prejudice than “undocumented.”

But Santa Ana says he still doesn’t like the phrase “undocumented immigrant” either, because it “shortchanges the complexity of immigration” by reducing people’s humanity to their documentation. He prefers the phrase “unauthorized immigrant,” which he said acknowledges that the government doesn’t recognize a person without making a value judgment—but even that term has problems, he admitted. “Immigrants have all different stories,” he said. “The single adjective characterization leaves you with a one dimensional evaluation.”

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.

NEXT STORY: Going All-In On Resilience