Words Matter: Illegal Immigrant, Undocumented Immigrant, or Unauthorized Immigrant?

What term should we use to describe the 11 million or so people who have entered or reside within the U.S. without official government authorization? “Illegal immigrants,” “undocumented immigrants,” “unauthorized immigrants,” or something else entirely? The labels we use to refer to different classes of individuals are not merely neutral descriptors but often implicitly come with various associations or value judgments, which can, in turn, frame and influence political debates.

Conservatives tend to favor the term “illegal immigrant” and argue that it is the most precise because, unlike other terms such as “undocumented immigrant,” it underscores the legal violation that took place. However, critics of the phrase “illegal immigrant,” such as the Drop the I-Word campaign contend that “illegal immigrant” is actually imprecise or, at the very least, misleading. “Illegal” blankets all cases with connotations of criminality but different cases are treated differently under the law. For instance, living in the U.S. without authorization, such as overstaying a visa but entering the country legally, is a civil but not a criminal offense. “Illegal” also carries with it a finality that obscures the fluidity of immigration status, which can be adjusted based on different individual circumstances.

In 2013, the Associated Press (AP) changed its stylebook to no longer sanction the use of “illegal immigrant” on the ground that “illegal” should only describe an action but not a person. This represented an important shift due to the many newspapers that follow the AP’s style recommendations. Activists and immigrant advocates, of course, have long proclaimed, “No person is illegal.” The AP saw this change as consistent with its general practice of rejecting labels (for instance, saying someone is “diagnosed with schizophrenia” rather than “schizophrenic”). Instead of “illegal immigrant,” the AP suggests “living in or entering a country illegally” or “without legal permission.” But “illegal immigration” is still accepted by the AP insofar as this phrase does not describe people as “illegal.”

More recently, in April 2021, the Biden administration instructed U.S. immigration enforcement agencies to replace the term “illegal alien” (which is used throughout U.S. immigration law) with “undocumented noncitizen.”