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: Adversity.net)
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 Adversity.net 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!