Thursday, July 3, 2008

On the use of the term “illegal alien”

Ever since George Orwell pointed out the pernicious nature of words being used as code, we have recognized that in political debate words are often freighted with much that is concealed. In the current climate, nativists insist, actually demand, that undocumented immigrants be referred to as “illegal aliens.” If you can classify a whole group of people with a pejorative –alien --and then group them as “illegal,” you have carried out a neat trick: you have stripped a whole group of people of their humanity. Once dehumanized, any ill-treatment is judged by lesser standards, perhaps less moral than ones we apply to animals. I found the following essay, a non-political posting from the Mother Tounge Annoyances blog, quite instructive on this point.

On the "Illegal Alien"

How are you doing? Today I’d like to examine the term “illegal alien” and why its use bothers me so darned much.

Let’s be vulnerable and deeply honest with each other, okay? How often do you hear Americans use the term illegal alien with some discernable trace of prejudice and/or racism? Can you detect any shades of hypernationalism and/or ethnocentrism in this usage?

Speaking for myself, I am disappointed whenever I listen to news commentary or participate in a personal discussion and an individual refers to undocumented immigrants as “illegals” or “illegal aliens.” I’m not saying that (a) I can ‘read’ people’s motivations without asking them directly; or (b) The majority of those who use the term “illegal alien” do so with conscious or unconscious prejudicial intent.

On the other hand, I’ve found that, more often than not, when I ask an individual directly, eyeball-to-eyeball, if their use of “illegals” or “illegal aliens” belies some sort of anti-immigrant prejudice, my rigorously honest conversational partners tend to answer in the affirmative.

It’s time to parse some words. First let’s examine the phrase illegal alien. Wikipedia has an excellent entry on illegal immigration. Following is some relevant text from that piece:

The term “illegal alien” is conferred legitimacy by its official use in federal statutes. An illegal alien is a foreign national who resides in another country unlawfully, either by entering that country at a place other than a designated port of entry or as result of the expiration of a non-immigrant visa. Alternative terms include “illegal immigrant” and the euphemisms “undocumented immigrant,” “undocumented worker,” and “paperless immigrant.”

The Wikipedia author(s) make a good point in saying that some folks argue over the adjective illegal because an immigrant who illegally crosses the U.S. borders or overstays his or her visa intentionally has, in fact, “violated our laws and customs in establishing residence in our country. He or she is therefore a criminal under applicable U.S. laws.” (Reference:

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the adjective and noun alien in a couple of different ways. In definition B1a, the noun alien (used in an adjectival sense) means “a person belonging to another family, race, or nation; a stranger, a foreigner.”

Definition B1b in the OED pertains to our colloquial understanding of the term alien: “Science Fiction. An (intelligent) being from another planet, especially one far distant from the Earth; a strange (usually threatening) alien visitor.”

Hmm. For completeness, let us examine the adjective and noun illegal. The OED defines the adjectival sense of illegal in definition 1a as “Not legal or lawful; contrary to, or forbidden by, law.”

When the OED defines illegal as a noun, the entry reads starkly in definition B1: “illegal immigrant.”

Yeah yeah yeah—some folks might contend that my distaste for the phrase illegal alien boils down ultimately to a sturdy dose of semantics with a big ol’ pinch of political correctness thrown into the mix.

Linguistically and definitionally, the phrase illegal alien technically works to describe an undocumented immigrant, unauthorized migrant, or whatever euphemism you’d like to use. See for another set of definitions related to the terms alien, immigrant, illegal alien, and undocumented immigrant.

My purpose in this blog post is not to delve into the issue of illegal immigration in general. Heaven knows there are enough Joes and Janes rantin’ about this subject in their own personal weblogs. And good for them! Civilized discourse and freedom of expression are, to my understanding, at the heart of American democracy.

All this definitional stuff aside, however, I ask you to switch off your analytical minds for a moment and consider the following question with your hearts:

When you hear someone refer to an undocumented immigrant as an “illegal alien,” do you feel that this phrase in any, shape, or manner dehumanizes the person in question? Moreover, do you feel that the phrase may be intended to dehumanize the immigrant?

Obviously, I feel this way. And if you visit Web sites such as IllegalAliens.US, you’ll see that there exist plenty of people who disagree with me. Fine and fine.

Here is my “take” on the matter, folks: Men, women, and children who migrate from one country to another, whether they do so legally or illegally, are living, breathing, human beings who are worthy of dignity and respect.

Am I proposing that people change the way they speak or write? Not exactly. Instead, I would suggest that American citizens (a) ask themselves honestly what cultural assumptions (if any) underlie their use of “illegal alien”; and (b) consider that because this phrase is ‘loaded’ on many different levels, perhaps using a less inflammatory phrase to describe these men and women may be advisable.

What do you think? Does the phrase “illegal alien” bother you at all? Or, by contrast, do you think that any controversy regarding its use is a “tempest in a teapot”? Or…what? I look forward to learning from you. Have a wonderful day!


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Anonymous said...

You say:

"Ever since George Orwell pointed out the pernicious nature of words being used as code, we have recognized that in political debate words are often freighted with much that is concealed."

And then you post a quote from another blog where the author says, in effect, that (1) the term "illegal alien" is a legitimate term for describing a person who is in another country illegally, but that (2) he is still uncomfortable with *anyone* using that term because, sometimes, the term is used correctly by people who not nice (i.e., "any trace of prejudice").

So, by that standard, anyone of us can "veto" the use of any legitimate word or phrase by simply saying that any user has to prove a negative (i.e., that they have to prove that they are not prejudiced in any way).

George Orwell meets Pogo:

"We have met the Word Police, and he is us."

non-anonymously and respectfully,

Stephen Buckley

ragemail said...

The author of the Mother Tounge Annoyances blog, makes the point that the only legitimacy conferred on the term "illegal alien" is by Federal Statute but the statute that he cites makes no such defintion. It merely refers to "alien." The appellation of "Illeal" with alien is a function of political discourse. To that end the point remains that its use in such discourse is a means to dehumanize those to whom it refers. As for proving a negative, I would say the burden rests with the speaker just as it does when one uses the "n" word, the term "colored" or any number of loaded terms used to denigrate people. You most certainly could make the argument that "colored" is not an offensive term as it is also enshrined in a multitude of state and federal laws. That being the case, it still remains a loaded term which is used to denigrate those to whom it refers, Mr. Buckley. Political correctness has nothing to do with it. Simple human decency is what is at issue.

Anonymous said...

OK, I actually agree with you on not using the term illegal alien. But I don't agree with your logic in the response above.

It's not the just the federal statute mentioned above that legitimizes the term, you show that even the Oxford English Dictionary uses illegal alien as a legitimate term.

If YOU were completely honest with yourself, you would also admit that this IS somewhat about political correctness, especially since being PC is all about trying not to offend anyone which is often ridiculous.

Anonymous said...

It seems straightforward enough. Illegal aliens are just that. Aliens illegally in the country. Couldnt be simpler.

Undocumented just sounds like the pathetic immigrant pandering MSM-speak that it is. Poor Cholo undocumented, why, because he dropped his documents out of his back pocket somewhere? Not to worry as soon as he's gets his 'documents' we will all know he is perfectly legal. Yeah right.

zach said...

What is interesting about your argument against the term "illegal alien" is that you do not acknowledge the political and activist arguments inherent in the terms that people --including yourself-- would argue for in order to replace the term "illegal alien."

Before getting to that, let me address the premise of your objection to the term; that is, that it dehumanizes. In order for your argument to work, one must accept your premise that the term illegal alien is, de facto, dehumanizing. You offer no evidence for this claim. None. You simply state that it IS dehumanizing. Can and do some people treat illegal aliens badly? Certainly. At the turn of the 20th century, some people treated the massive waves of legal immigrants badly. The term immigrant, at the time, wasn't a compliment. Based on your assertion, any pejorative applied to anyone dehumanizes them, but some terms that we think of as benign have and can be employed in a pejorative way. That would mean that alcoholics, drunk drivers, and high school dropouts have all been "stripped of their humanity." This is nonsense on its face. A term that is not a compliment, or even occasionally used as insult, does not make that term dehumanizing.

As for the term illegal alien itself. The term illegal alien refers, in a concise and direct way, to any person you enters the U.S. illegally. Period. It does not address why the person has entered the country or what he intends to do or not do once in the U.S. Any term you propose to replace "illegal alien" must address that specifically; someone entering the U.S. illegally, period. If you do not like the term, you must replace it with a term that accurately describes the person and their actions. "Undocumented" does not replace "illegal" in any accurate or meaningful way. If it did, then anyone who drives without obtaining a license, or who drives on a suspended license, would be an "undocumented driver." Not so. The fact that he does not have the document that permits him to drive is not a simple oversight on his part, like not having your receipt when you want to return a T-Shirt at Wal-Mart. It's an overt illegal act. People argue for the use of the term undocumented in order to soften the fact that illegal aliens are doing something illegal by entering the U.S.

The terms "immigrant" or "worker" also do not accurately describe someone who is not a citizen. That is what the term alien means in legal parlance; an alien is someone who is not a citizen, period. By contrast, a person who is not a citizen but has applied for U.S. citizenship properly and has been allowed to enter the U.S. is a "legal alien. The use of the terms immigrant and worker to replace alien is intended to distract attention from the fact that people who enter the U.S. illegally not citizen and may in fact, simply be in the U.S. to immigrate permanently or contribute to society by working. Maybe. But those are assumptions intended to provoke sympathy for the illegal alien, not to describe accurately what the individual has done.

Moreover, an "immigrant" moves from one country to another with the intention of permanent residency; he may not end up living in his new country permanently, but the use of the term "immigrant" implies that. Otherwise, he would be a migrant. Illegal aliens may or may not want to live in the U.S. permanently, but the terms proposed to describe illegal aliens in a more sympathetic way imply such. Calling an illegal alien an undocumented worker implies that the person has come to the U.S. to work. That is an unverifiable assumption. Members of MS-13 who have come to the U.S. illegally have not come to work, but they are illegal aliens.

Personally, while I have no problem seeing the humanity of any illegal alien --if I lived in any poor country, I'd come to the U.S. in anyway I could-- I am completely open to an alternative term you would like to offer to the term "illegal alien." But, that term must describe someone who is a noncitizen who has entered the country illegally. Period. Any thing more or less than that makes a political assumption about the person committing the crime --entering the U.S. illegally. The term undocumented immigrant/worker does not suffice, in fact, tries to divert attention from the only fact that we can verify about someone who has entered the country illegally: that he is a noncitizen breaking the law.

zach said...

Sorry: My 3rd from last paragraph got garbled. It should read as below.

The terms "immigrant" or "worker" also do not accurately describe someone who is not a citizen. That is what the term alien means in legal parlance; an alien is someone who is not a citizen, period. By contrast, a person who is not a citizen but has applied for U.S. citizenship properly and has been allowed to enter the U.S. is a "legal alien. The use of the terms "immigrant" and "worker" to replace alien is intended to distract attention from the fact that people who enter the U.S. illegally are not citizens. The use of those terms are also used to imply that illegal aliens, in fact, may have come to the U.S. to do what many legal immigrants have done in the past: to immigrate permanently and contribute to society by working. Well, maybe. But those are assumptions intended to provoke sympathy for the illegal alien, not to describe accurately what the individual has done.

Anonymous said...

Zach's arguement is well articulated and right on the button.

I find it supremely amazing that pro-anachists (those who support criminal behavior, such as illegal immigration by all arguements absurd) cast stones at legitimate nomenclature that was long ago institutionalize and nuetral poltically (i.e. "illegal alien" / "criminal alien" et al) in favor of manipulating facts and truth toward installing propagandistic and obfuscating terms such as "immigrants" (which insults all law abiding immigrants by the way), are also the very same folks who then apply slanted terms such as "Nativists," "haters" "racists" and other cloring nomenclature to those who merely prefer support the rule of law and live in a law abiding society. Usually such folks are profiting off criminal labor / illegal aliens and cleverly hiding the fact that they are in support of this modern day slavery environment created by criminal workers (i.e. immigration lawyers, dull witted bloggers, sweatroom employers, etc.) and encouraged by corporate greed.

If we dehumaize the criminal, it's because we value the noncriminal and wish to discourage non-valued behavior. If a bankrobber robs the bank, do we say, "oh, I'm sorry... you're not a criminal bank robber, you're just a unfortuate and poor human suffering to feed your family who needed a little extra cash---you're amnestied!"

The only arguement the pro-anachist can make effectively on this issue of criminal immigration is to employ emotional ploys and use trickery and deciet rather than hard facts to support their positions. That's why they need to eliminate poltical nuetral words like "illegal alien" and replace them with benign and confusing words like "immigrant."

And just for the record... if you enter the country illegally or overstay a visa, the law probits you from immigrating---why---because you're untrustworthy and a law breaker, of which America already has too many!

Thousands of people now use the more accurate term "criminal invader" (based on the fact millions of foreigners, not just a handful, have invaded the country) rather than "criminal" or "illegal immigrant" or just "immigrant."

And for the record, criminal invaders come in all races, be it White, Hispanic, Asian, Black, etc. (all these races are found in Mexico, by the way---Mexicans are not a race but a nationality) as well as ethnicities so cut the racism accusations---only hacks spread such propaganda.

Anonymous said...

it is racist to use the term alien. americans refer to documented foreigners as aliens. what does that tell you? that only americans are considered human beings. i can see how some countries can use the term illegal immigrant, but i cant see how any american can have the nerve to call anyone an illegal immigrant, given that almost the entire country are illegal immigrants minus the natives.

nezua said...

nice breakdown of a hateful phrase. of course you are right. and those griping in the comments are obviously struggling hard to maintain the use of a term that works arm in arm with race-based violence so i'd just ignore them. the voice of oppression is always squawking about something, trying to legitimize a further grip on an unequal power imbalance. peace.