Will New Words Change How We Think About Illegal Immigration?

Protest against the legal treatment of immigrants in Santa Cruz, California (Manfred Werner/Wikimedia Commons) Protest against the legal treatment of immigrants in Santa Cruz, California (Manfred Werner/Wikimedia Commons)The Associated Press is dropping the term, ‘illegal immigrant,’ and the New York Times may soon follow suit (though the Times says its change won’t be so sweeping). The Times public editor says “language evolves,” which is undoubtedly does. But so do politics and public attitudes. They more than language evolution seem to be pushing news organizations away from the term ‘illegal immigrant’ right now.

Two groups have campaigned for this change: Drop the I-word and Define American. Monica Novoa, who has run them both, says the use of the word, ‘illegal,’ implies that it is legal terminology, which it is not. She says calling a person illegal, “gives the impression that the whole entity of a person can be illegal.” She prefers ‘undocumented’ or ‘unauthorized.’

This comes at a key moment in the history of immigration in the United States. In Washington, a ‘Group of Eight’ lawmakers are working on a bipartisan immigration reform plan that is likely to offer a legal path to citizenship to millions of undocumented immigrants. Republican Senator John McCain, one of the Group of Eight, has been asked– and has refused– to drop his use of ‘illegal immigrant.’ Republicans opposed to immigration reform use stronger terms still– like ‘illegal alien'(which is still the term favored by the federal immigration agency, ICE). Most Democrats now avoid ‘illegal’ and ‘alien.’

So, what term can be used in place of ‘illegal immigrant’? Here are some suggestions from non-English language US media in this article from New American Media:

    Korean: ‘illegal overstayers’
    Punjabi: ‘living in hiding’
    Tagalog slang: TNT (‘tago ng tago,’ or ‘always in hiding’)

This 2011 report from Michel Marizco of the Fronteras desk offers some more suggestions:


‘Illegal immigrant’ isn’t the only expression that people can’t agree on. There’s ‘amnesty’ too, as discussed in a recent podcast.



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