“Illegal” v. “Undocumented”

Wherein I take issue with a charactization made by Tom Nichols and discuss the politics of language.

James Joyner quotes Tom Nichols’ column criticizing Ron DeSantis’s stunt of moving migrants around the country to score points with his base. In that piece for The Atlantic (the well-titled, A Sadistic Immigration Stunt) Nichols says the following:

(I am also one of those people who finds the term “undocumented immigrant” Orwellian nonsense. It is a phrase meant to command empathy by implying that a person who has broken American law merely lacks documents. We can welcome people at the border, we can determine who needs asylum, we can fight human trafficking—and we can do all of those things without mangling language. But that’s an argument for another day.)

Like James, I think that what Nichols is trying to establish here, and in several other places in the column, is that he has what might be thought of (pre-MAGA) as conservative views on immigration policy but that despite those bona fides, he finds DeSantis’s behavior to be disgraceful and cruel.

I would suggest that we focus on Nichols’ critique of using human beings as pawns and let, as he suggests, specific policy disagreements for another day.

Still, I do want to talk about political language for a moment here. I read the Nichols piece last night and his deployment of “Orwellian” really struck me. I don’t think that is an appropriate descriptor, insofar as “Orwellian” has a highly negative connotation and suggests trying to mask the real meaning of a word for political purposes, usually with some authoritarian or dystopian consequence.

I have been aware for some time that the choice of whether to type “illegal” or “undocumented” (or, as I did in my post yesterday, “unauthorized”–another conscious choice to avoid my choice of language to distract from the broader point) might generate a political response from the reader. These are words that end up often, although not always, hinting at one’s position. The debate is, as Google helped me remember this morning, well over a decade old (and perhaps older than that). For example, here is a lengthy NPR piece from 2010 (which I think I heard at the time) wherein the issue of the term was debated. The proximate issue was Justice Sotomayor using the term “undocumented” instead of “illegal” for the first time in a SCOTUS opinion in 2009.

A lot of the debate over the term was the notion that saying “illegal immigrant” is problematic because the modifier “illegal” in this context branded the person (the immigrant) and not the crime of crossing the border without authorization. There is also the further complication that the violation in question may only be an administrative one or, as is the case with asylum seekers, they may have crossed the border without appropriate documentation, but they are not illegally in the country.

So, there are some accuracy issues here at a minimum.

The main reason I have shied away from the term is that “illegal immigration” is often truncated to speak of simply “illegals” which strikes me as often being used as a slur. It certainly has negative connotations. Moreover, a person is not a criminal, nor are their acts actually illegal, until a court has rendered judgment. As such, it seems to me that it is unfair to call a group of people “illegal” until they have had their day in court–and hence, I prefer “undocumented” or “unauthorized.” (Basically, I am applying “innocent until proven guilty” logic to my word choices).

And there are clear normative issues as well. To quote the 2010 piece NPR piece linked above, I find the following (from Kevin Johnson, then Dean of the law school at the University of California, Davis, and member of the Board of Directors for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, a.k.a., MALDEF) persuasive:

Prof. JOHNSON: I agree with Ruben. I think that terminology is important. And as you say, the power of words has meaning particularly when we talk about a divisive issue like immigration, which is controversial and is very contentious. And for that reason, I think, we need to try to ensure that we have calm, reason and rationality in the debate. And I fear that illegal immigrant – the term – is a loaded term. It’s not as loaded as some of it’s predecessors like illegal alien or wetback.

But it still is a loaded term. And when we talk about drivers who violate the driving laws, we don’t talk about illegal drivers. We talk about children who work in violation of the child labor laws. We don’t talk about illegal children. And I think it’s much too comprehensive to talk about illegal immigrants when, as Ruben’s column accurately points out, that could be somebody who’s reentered after committing felonies. It could be somebody who overstayed a business visa or a tourist visa, but really it creates bad connotations from the outset and it’s easy to give in to people to treat dehumanized illegal immigrants in a harsh way than it is to treat people in a harsh way.

And we can certainly see that there are a lot of people who find actions like DeSantis’s acceptable, if not laudatory, because “those people” aren’t supposed to be here anyway, after all, they are “illegal.”

I would note in that context, that American culture tends to assume that once someone is a criminal, they can be treated quite poorly (I mean, don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time! And if you get raped in prison, well that’s on you–and you probably deserve it anyway, etc.). So, using a term like “illegal immigrant” builds a lot of justification into the minds of many Americans for the mistreatment of fellow humans. We are seeing that this week, in fact.

I am also reminded by the quote from Johnson that in my lifetime we used to use the phrase “illegal aliens” which was even more dehumanizing because aliens are clearly not us. Aliens are strange invaders–especially in the mid-to-late 20th-century context wherein the word “alien” was more likely to conjure little green men or creatures ripping through a person’s stomach rather than the older usage of the word to simply mean foreigner.

So, in some ways, I would argue that phrases like “undocumented” or “unauthorized” are part of a broader evolution towards less inflammatory language.

But, of course, a lot of people want to use inflammatory language, and hence the debate, I suppose.

Another reason I have moved away from the “illegal” term is that a significant chunk of anti-immigrant rhetoric is that are not just criminals for crossing the border without a visa, but they are criminals of the violent variety we should all fear. I noted this in my 2018 post, Words Matter.

Who could forget the following from then-candidate Trump?

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.

See also:

All of this explains why I tend to choose the language that I choose and to suggest to people like Tom Nichols that such choices aren’t Orwellian in the least. Further, such choices aren’t just a case of “political correctness” (or dare I say, “wokeness”) but instead an honest attempt to find the appropriate language to deploy in what is a fraught and complex topic. Moreover, the fraughtness and complexity are deepened by the fact that many of the interlocutors in the conversation are overt racists who are also trying to shape the language for their own nefarious ends. It would be a lot easier to settle on terms if we were all honest participants of the game simply trying to arrive at policy prescriptions.

FILED UNDER: Borders and Immigration, US Politics, , , , , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Stormy Dragon says:

    So, in some ways, I would argue that phrases like “undocumented” or “unauthorized” are part of a broader evolution towards less inflammatory language.

    For me, the importance of “undocumented” or “unauthorized” is to point out that the agency here lies with our society, not with the migrants. They’re here, peaceably living their lives, working, raising families, etc. and we’re actively choosing to use violence to grab them and move them out of the country against their will. It’s not something they’re forcing us to do, it’s something we choose to do.

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  2. Modulo Myself says:

    Words are rhetorical choices. They are not used logically, as anyone should be able to figure out. In that vein, I don’t think ‘illegal’ has to be so fraught. It’s like the word ‘homosexual’–that is a fraught word, because it comes from a time when gay people were treated at best like clinical specimens. ‘Illegal’ has the same connotation. Crossing a border is not a real crime any more than speeding is. And regarding Orwell–because Nichols mentions him–there’s nothing in Orwell’s life and work that makes me think he would equate crossing a border for economic purposes as a crime. In fact, the border as an ultimate law is the most Orwellian thing out there. Turning that into a meaningful distinction of nation is like turning a portrait of a dictator into a sacred object.

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  3. Matt Bernius says:

    Great post Steven. Cosign everything you wrote.

    @Stormy Dragon:

    For me, the importance of “undocumented” or “unauthorized” is to point out that the agency here lies with our society, not with the migrants

    Nice point. It’s definitely not as dehumanizing language.

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  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Well said, Steven.

    When I heard this,

    When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.

    My first thought was, “No, you f’n idiot, they are sending us some of their best, much to their detriment.” because people who go thru what these people do and the sacrifices they make shows how much they care for their families.

    I also thought, “At least they aren’t sending another trump.”

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  5. gVOR08 says:

    It’s unclear who Nichols is talking about when he mentions “illegal”, but his closing paragraph sounds a lot like he thinks the term applies to the 50 people at issue here. In the paragraph immediately before the one Dr. T quotes Nichols says,

    I am the grandson of immigrants on both sides of my family, and I cherish and celebrate immigration—but I also believe in law and order.

    What has that to do with the case at hand?

    The whole topic of immigration is so messy and so loaded with propaganda I’m not sure I understand anything. But as I understand the case, these people are documented and in the country legally. As I understand the story they approached U. S. authorities at the border, requested asylum, and were allowed into the country under an asylum policy established by law as required by treaties we have signed. They are in the country awaiting a hearing on their status. It’s hardly their fault we under-resource that process. Unless and until their asylum requests are denied, they are in the country legally. As someone noted in this thread or the other, as Venezuelans there’s a fair chance they will be granted asylum. They do not have green cards, but I can’t imagine the process hasn’t generated documentation.

    So I’m unclear as to what Nichols is talking about. And I don’t think it’s clear to him either.

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  6. Stormy Dragon says:

    I would note in that context, that American culture tends to assume that once someone is a criminal, they can be treated quite poorly (I mean, don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time! And if you get raped in prison, well that’s on you–and you probably deserve it anyway, etc.). So, using a term like “illegal immigrant” builds a lot of justification into the minds of many Americans for the mistreatment of fellow humans. We are seeing that this week, in fact.

    I’d say it’s even worse then this. For a big chunk of America, “criminal” is a type of person, and if you’re born as one you deserve to be treated as one whether or not there’s an identifiable law you can be shown to have violated. Likewise, if you’re not a criminal, any laws you do violate should be waived as you’re obviously not one of the people it was intended to ensnare.

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  7. MarkedMan says:

    While I believe strongly that we should treat everyone here with compassion and respect, I don’t think the “illegal” modifier is inherently disrespectful. Contrary to what you said, Steven, IMO it is totally appropriate to say that people who drive above the speed limit or weave dangerously in and out of traffic or drive under the influence are driving illegally. “Illegal drivers” sounds awkward but there is nothing wrong with it. The important fact is that they are breaking civil or criminal laws, and we shouldn’t elide that by trying to prettify the language.

    In past decades when Ireland was an economic basket case, any given Chicago construction season would find as many as a dozen of my Irish relatives working illegally. They knew it, and we all knew it. However much I loved seeing them, the fact that they could get in trouble was there front and center. Now, I don’t think calling them “illegal immigrants” is quite right as they had no intention of staying permanently. But they were certainly illegal workers. When my wife was in the UK tending bar and working as a nanny she had no work visa. She was, in fact, illegally working there.

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  8. Andy says:

    @MarkedMan:

    I agree with MarkedMan here.

    One could also look at other countries, although the language in many other places is also moving from “illegal” to other terms.

    I also think much depends on individual circumstances. In general (I’m sure there are and should be exceptions), I think people who are deported and then choose to come back in are not merely “undocumented.” Anyone else should be given the benefit of the doubt until their situation is adjudicated.

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  9. Bob@Youngstown says:

    @MarkedMan:
    IMO A person who is driving with no license or under a suspended license might reasonably be called an “illegal driver”. OTOH, the driver who is speeding (etc) might be reasonably be accused “driving illegally”.

    Now that we are officially in political silly season, there are going to be loads of advertising that conflate meanings. Today I was entertained with a barrage of claims that Biden/Harris and their Congressional minions are not securing the borders, and that is causing all the economic inflation. Ignoring the conclusion (as just being silly), the thought that occurred to me was: “SECURE” may well have different meanings to various people.
    What is a “secure” border?
    (Is the Canadian border “secure”?)

    The point I’m making is this, How can we intelligently converse on a topic if we don’t have a mutual understanding of the terms we use?

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  10. Gustopher says:

    All of this explains why I tend to choose the language that I choose and to suggest to people like Tom Nichols that such choices aren’t Orwellian in the least.

    People who find clumsy efforts to keep other people from being demonized to be Orwellian really need to reread Orwell.

    I do think “undocumented immigrant” is clumsy. By and large these people are simply refugees — people fleeing poor economies, political persecution, crime, war, human rights violations… refugees.

    “Undocumented immigrant” also says that what is important is that they came here, rather than what they are fleeing from. If we have a problem with unprecedented numbers of undocumented immigrants at our southern border, we are looking for solutions to bolster our borders to make sure only the preferred immigrants get in. But if we have a problem of unprecedented numbers of refugees at the southern border, it’s a lot clearer that part of the solution has to be improving the problems they are fleeing from (or improving Mexico, so more people want to stop there instead…)

    But I don’t control the language of debate. So “undocumented immigrant” it is, as it’s the least worst commonly understood term, with a light dusting of refugee when I can manage/remember.

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  11. Michael Reynolds says:

    We’ve gone through half a dozen terms for Black people. And still George Floyd died with a cop’s knee on his throat. Not in Tulsa or Selma, but in Minneapolis FFS. All the changes in terminology yielded precisely nothing in real world effect. Creating neologisms does not work. Substituting two words for one, does not work. This is magical thinking and a glance at reality reveals its lack of effect.

    What do people think happens inside the brain when one hears the phrase ‘n-word’? It is instantly translated into whichever word you’d like it to be. Racists translate it one way, the rest of us first translate it into the same word the racists use, then we search for a more acceptable term, none of which changes anything out in reality.

    Exactly the same process occurs when one chooses ‘undocumented’ or ‘unauthorized.’ Did the change in terminology result in more humane attitudes toward whatever the hell we’re calling them? Nope.

    This is a sport for academics and college kids. It’s a facile bit of virtue signaling. And it becomes this ridiculous game in which those who are an update behind the curve are suddenly cast into darkness, like people still running iOS 7.

    We’ve been piling on obfuscation and neologisms and is the country less divided over race, immigration status, gender or anything else? Nope. We seem more divided than at any time since 1860. Doctor, I don’t think the treatment is working ’cause the patient seems as sick as ever.

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  12. Andy says:

    I would just add that I think a major consideration is that status needs to be determined before a label can be properly used. While that status is still being adjudicated, then “illegal” probably isn’t the right term. But neither is “undocumented.” I think something like “provisional” immigrant would be more accurate. Then, once the status is determined, those eligible for legal status are asylees or whatever category they fit into. Those who are not and are subject to deportation are illegal.

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  13. @MarkedMan:

    I don’t think the “illegal” modifier is inherently disrespectful

    From a denotative POV, I utterly agree. My point, however, is that the connotation matters and connotations evolve over time.

    There is nothing inherently wrong with stating that someone who just waded through the river has a back that is wet. But we know full well that to call someone a “wetback” has a specific meaning that has evolved over time.

    Language requires context to fully understand.

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  14. @Andy: I don’t have any problem with that, and it fits my general view.

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  15. @gVOR08: I think it is part of the notion that “if my family immigrated legally, so should these new immigrants” which is a wholly reasonable position to take, until one realizes that the current persons don’t have the same pathway.

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  16. @Michael Reynolds: I am continually amazed by the professional writer who thinks that words lack power and therefore all of this is nothing but an academic exercise.

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  17. @Michael Reynolds:

    We’ve gone through half a dozen terms for Black people. And still George Floyd died with a cop’s knee on his throat. Not in Tulsa or Selma, but in Minneapolis FFS. All the changes in terminology yielded precisely nothing in real world effect.

    So, a world in which whites regularly called blacks by the n-word and use that term as a way to denigrate and dehumanize is no different than a world in which that is not the case?

    You have made this argument before, but it just floors me.

    And the notion that improvement have to 100% fix things to be improvements is a great way to make no progress whatsoever.

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  18. DK says:

    Things are better for blacks since calling us “n—-s” and “coloreds” went out of fashion. That America still has big problems does not = nothing’s changed.

    My Mama and Daddy insisted on good manners and respectful language to the point of absurdity. We kids were never allowed to call each other “stupid” — lest paternal hellfire rain upon us — or use the word “hate” at all ever, not even for objects. “It’s not ‘I hate okra’ it’s ‘I dislike okra.’ We don’t use that word. Charity begins at home and spreads abroad.

    Okay, mom, whatever. We rolled our eyes. Later, living far from my parents, I noticed connections between rude, careless language and awful personalities.

    Then in grad school for psychology, we studied the research on how changing one’s language changes one’s thoughts and behaviors. It’s why “positive self-talk” works. It’s why forcing couples in therapy to speak kindly to one another improves their feelings towards each others. Over time, your word usage can literally rewire your brain. That’s why we should insist on good manners in our children.

    Elements of the left do go annoyingly overboard, but language is not unimportant. There’s likely a direct correlation between the stigmatization of the n-word and blacks’ improved status in our society.

    Also, respectful identitarian language seems to be less a hurdle for youngsters than for those born when gays had no rights, trans were in shadow, women couldn’t get credit cards without a man’s permission, and blacks were drinking from separate fountains. So. Trumpist backlash is a setback, but we’ll be fine.

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  19. Just nutha says:

    What I’ve seen over the years is that people who want to make negative connotations will construct them from whatever language society decides is non-connotative. People who will hate will not let attempts to create purely descriptive language thwart them.

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  20. gVOR08 says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Is it not the case the people in question are seeking asylum? If so, they are following a legal path and WTF is Nichols even talking about?

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  21. MarkedMan says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: It does. And the people that are being discussed here are not illegal in any way. But when we are talking about people being here illegally I think making a stink about using that term is a diversion. Quibbling over this serves as a distraction, a way of not dealing with the very real challenges of living in a country that people are willing to risk their lives to reach. There are literally billions of people that would journey here if we were to open our borders. People who are anti-immigrant may or may not be racist but regardless that concern is real and should be honestly addressed.

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  22. Matt Bernius says:

    @MarkedMan:

    There are literally billions of people that would journey here if we were to open our borders. People who are anti-immigrant may or may not be racist but regardless that concern is real and should be honestly addressed.

    Generally speaking, I agree with this point (though I’ll quibble with “billions” — given that current estimates are that the goal population is 8 billion, I don’t think that 13% of the earth’s population wants to be American–though that gets to the larger point I’m about to make). And I also think it loops us back to the overall lingusitic aspect that Steven started us off with. In particular the use of the word “immigrant.”

    I’d argue that we have a pre-mid-20th-century understanding of what’s happening. Yes, some people are choosing to emigrate here in the traditional sense. However, due to advancements in travel technology, not everyone is coming here with the goal of living in the country for the rest of their lives.

    A not insignificant portion, if given the option, come here to work for set periods of time (sometimes seasonally, others for x number of years)–often sending home significant remittances–and have the eventual goal of returning home. This, in fact, was a key part of GWB-era reforms that were torpedo’d by his own party.

    Admittedly, there is a separate discussion about whether or not this sort of ex-patriot workforce (one that lots of American citizens engage in oversees) is a good thing for the culture or not. But at a minimum, starting with a nuanced view of why people are coming to the US would definitely help with political and policy conversations.

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  23. @Just nutha:

    What I’ve seen over the years is that people who want to make negative connotations will construct them from whatever language society decides is non-connotative. People who will hate will not let attempts to create purely descriptive language thwart them.

    Sure. But that doesn’t mean we should surrender on the language front, does it?

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  24. Kylopod says:

    “Orwellian” has a highly negative connotation and suggests trying to mask the real meaning of a word for political purposes, usually with some authoritarian or dystopian consequence.

    I think part of the confusion over that term comes from the fact that Orwell himself, when critiquing political language, wasn’t consistent in whether he was talking about authoritarian or democratic governments. 1984 and Animal Farm are about authoritarianism. But his slightly less-discussed (but still popular) essay “Politics and the English Language” is largely about bureaucrat-speak in democracies. When people today say something is “Orwellian,” they’re trying to invoke the overtones of either of his two great novels, but what they usually end up criticizing is more the kind of language outlined in his essay.

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  25. Ken_L says:

    Why not simply call them “asylum-seekers”, as I do? Genuinely illegal immigrants aren’t living in Border Security camps. They’re working for Republicans as gardeners and nannies .

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  26. Just nutha says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Don’t recall ending my comment with that suggestion, but if that’s what you read, my apologies.

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  27. @Just nutha: I was just noting, I suppose in connection to things that MR said, that while it is certainly true that folks will bad motives and views will use language as they see fit that that doesn’t mean the broader society can’t improve its usages.

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