Immigration Debate: Is it Undocumented or Illegal Immigrant?


A debate is beginning on Capitol Hill over how to legislate the population of 11 million who have thus far successfully slipped through the legal system, living and working in the United States without being afforded any document giving them permission to do so. But before the substantive argument can get under way, there is discussion over how to refer to those being discussed.

Terms frame debate; they guide a discussion’s direction and at times even resolve an argument at the very onset. Quibbling over how a group of 11 million people is referred to during a debate over their fate may seem like semantics, but there is power in association. For this reason, the argument laid out in the title of this article, and brought up by Representative John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) in Congress, is reasonable. In fact, there are three combinations which I have seen used in the discussion: illegal alien, illegal immigrant, and undocumented immigrant. Each term has its own associations and can be used for very specific purposes. Which is the right term? Depends on what you’re trying to do.

Illegal has a very distinct negative connotation; using illegal provides an association with a desire to remove those in question from our country and our lives. Illegal makes things dirty, makes things tainted, makes things dangerous. Undocumented, on the other hand, does not specifically imply wrongdoing. Undocumented implies that there is a chance for things to be repaired and takes the blame, and much of the stigma, away from the people, placing it on the system or even no one at all.

Alien is just as much of a stigma as illegal. Alien makes someone sound out of place, away from home, not where they belong. Alien is a legal term referring to anyone in a foreign country, but that does not reduce the effect it has by association with the extraterrestrial. Immigrant has exactly the opposite effect. The United States is a country of immigrants, it is our history, immigrant blood runs through our veins.

Which term should be used? Well remember, this is a debate. The framing here will not be easy, and those with agendas will very consciously choose one of the above terms. Obviously those looking for a more harsh or unyielding stance will choose between illegal alien and illegal immigrant. In this way, they can justify deportation or any harsher treatment simply by pointing to the title of these 11 million people. Those pursuing a more accommodating approach are likely to use undocumented immigrant in order to remove any stigma that exists. None of this should be news.

So which term should be used by those outside the debate? Well, choosing a term inherently puts you in the debate. By framing the debate with one term or another, you are giving it a bias, a framework it would not have with a different term. For anyone trying to remain objective, I would stay basic and just refer to the 11 million as people.