Between “Illegal Aliens” and “Undocumented Workers”: the Political Language of Immigration

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As someone who loves words, I try to keep up with the “Lexicon Valley” podcasts and articles at — and today they wheel out a good one for OC readers (and it includes a transcript as well.)  It’s on the political language of immigration — well, not “immigration,” actually, because that includes legal immigration done through proper channels in which temporary or permanent residency status is maintained — and there already you can see the problem.  It’s on what opponents of non-legal presence in the U.S. call “illegal aliens” (or sometimes “illegal immigrants”) and what their defenders call “undocumented workers” (or sometimes “undocumented immigrants.”)  As a prominent conservative county close to the Mexican border and on the Pacific shore, OC has often been in the middle of the national debate over immigration.

I don’t like either of the commonly used terms noted above.  “Illegal alien” is worse, because it depicts people who play a large part in the life of our country (and especially our region) entirely by their immigration status — and because it conflates the technical meaning of “alien” with the colloquial meaning of “not part of us” — which, walk around if you want to, ain’t so.

Lots of people do lots of things that are illegal.  I know few freeway drivers in OC who are not “illegal” in that they routinely violate the traffic laws (most obviously against speeding.)  Even so, we would not call them “illegal drivers,” let alone simply referring them by the noun “illegals.”  (But isn’t there a difference between speeding and being in the U.S. without citizenship or visa?  Sure there is: speeding is a criminal act, while being in the U.S. without proper status is merely a civil violation.  The former also kills more people than the latter.)

While I like neither part of “illegal alien,” I’m also no fan of the clunky phrase “undocumented workers.”  First, many of the people in the category are not “workers,” but children, unemployed, retirees, non-working spouses, convicts, etc.  The word “workers” is chosen because “work” is good and respectable; but it’s a foolish choice because it leads directly to a narrative of “stealing our jobs.”  As for “undocumented,” the problem is not that people don’t have papers demonstrating legal residency status (and in fact some of them do, though they’re forged), but that they are not currently entitled to them.  To me, the phrase comes off as a failed PR exercise — and most people who aren’t devoted to it can see through it.

So, if not “illegal alien” nor “undocumented worker,” what does one call these people who are here in the U.S. despite having neither citizenship nor active (and unexpired and unforfeited) visa status or no need for visa due to their own citizenship?  Funny, that came up in the podcast — and it’s the first time that I can remember hearing someone besides myself use the “neutral term” that I think actually does fit the category.

Let’s go to the transcript, in which linguist Mike Vuolo is speaking to radio broadcaster Bob Garfield:

[F]or me, “illegal” appears within the larger context of a kind of dehumanizing language around this issue. That’s one really important point for me. The second is that I think calling a group of people “illegal” for coming to this country for work totally ignores and obscures, I think, the role that companies and the government has played in recruiting this labor. I mean we saw that in 1920. We saw it with the Bracero Program. We’ve seen it in more recent times when corporations are encouraged to sort of look the other way because they want cheap labor. You know, for those two reasons alone, that’s enough to sort of knock me off the fence and look for a different word. And you know I asked Jonathan Rosa, what’s the alternative? And he mentioned “unauthorized” as a possible term that isn’t politically charged. And if fact the day after the election I was reading the New Yorker online and they listed a number of sort of policy proposals and issues that they thought Obama would try to tackle in his second term, one of which was immigration reform. And they said that the goal should be to “pass the DREAM Act. Make a deal with Republicans on a comprehensive immigration bill that includes a path to legalization for unauthorized immigrants.”

BOB: Mm-hmm.

MIKE: And I thought, well, you know, I think I could live with that word.

BOB: And to me that is the “differently abled” of immigration policy. It doesn’t even mean anything. It’s so expansive. Unauthorized? What does it mean you don’t have a pass to get backstage? Ehhh. I think that gets to the very nub of why it is very dangerous to try to use linguistic revisionism as a means to pursue social policy. It just kind of misses the point and bastardizes language and obscures meaning. So, I think your argument has made me solidify mine.

MIKE: I actually don’t think we’re all that far apart on this Bob, because I think that while you understand the sort of dehumanizing effect of casting an entire population as “illegal” and how that term then becomes associated with Mexicans whether they’re citizens or not, and I understand that it’s important to call things by their name, we can sort of touch hands right across the fence here. So maybe we’ll throw this out to our listeners and ask them. Tell us what you think. Has this word “illegal” become far too stigmatized for the various points that I’ve made or does it remain accurate and useful for the points that Bob has made. You can write to us at

(This follows a longer discussion, of which the portion just prior to this (too much for me to quote) is especially interesting, as it deals with the metaphors people use for this category in our verbal communications.  I really do recommend checking it out, maybe during some free time over Thanksgiving.)

The term that I’ve been pushing for years is “unauthorized resident.”  Why?  Because it’s perfectly descriptive.  The people in question reside here:  often for work, sometimes to be with their families, sometimes because it’s the only home they’ve known.  (They’re often here for far less time than the term “immigrants” implies.)  And what they lack is the legal authorization to do so.  They are, to use the most appropriate legal model, trespassing: present in a place they’re not supposed to be.  And sometimes trespassing is tolerated, sometimes it becomes licensed, sometimes it is deterred, and sometimes it is punished.  (Among the punishments for it is sometimes summary execution — you know, being shot on sight — but that is generally illegal and even when not illegal is generally, although not universally, considered horrible and disgusting.)  I think that that’s the model we want.

I’ve used that term at least twice here before now, eliciting negative comments from conservatives both generally respectable and downright weird.   (“AHHHHHHH!”)   With another immigration debate in Congress right around the corner, I’m interested in what you all think of this approach.

Some good news for my side: I found this through Google on a Department of Homeland Security site document:

“The unauthorized resident immigrant population is defined as all foreign-born non-citizens who are not legal residents. Most unauthorized residents either entered the United States without inspection or were admitted temporarily and stayed past the date they were required to leave. . .”

Maybe there’s hope yet.  On the other hand, let’s never forget that Dana Rohrabacher is a putz.  This photo graces that story.

Person holding sign asking "What does illegal look like?"


About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose worker's rights and government accountability attorney, residing in northwest Brea. General Counsel of CATER, the Coalition of Anaheim Taxpayers for Economic Responsibility, a non-partisan group of people sick of local corruption. Deposed as Northern Vice Chair of DPOC in April 2014 when his anti-corruption and pro-consumer work in Anaheim infuriated the Building Trades and Teamsters in spring 2014, who then worked with the lawless and power-mad DPOC Chair to eliminate his internal oversight. Occasionally runs for office to challenge some nasty incumbent who would otherwise run unopposed. (Someday he might pick a fight with the intent to win rather than just dent someone. You'll know it when you see it.) He got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012 and in 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002. None of his pre-putsch writings ever spoke for the Democratic Party at the local, county, state, national, or galactic level, nor do they now. A family member co-owns a business offering campaign treasurer services to Democratic candidates and the odd independent. He is very proud of her. He doesn't directly profit from her work and it doesn't affect his coverage. (He does not always favor her clients, though she might hesitate to take one that he truly hated.) He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.)