What Is the Proper Term: Illegal or Undocumented Immigrant?

A father carries his sleeping son, 3, after their family illegally crossed the U.S.-Mexico border on December 7, 2015 near Rio Grande City, Texas.
John Moore / Getty Images

When someone resides in the United States without having filled out the requisite immigration paperwork, that person is often called an "illegal immigrant." But why is it not preferable to use this term?

Good Reasons to Avoid the Term 'Illegal Immigrant'

  1. "Illegal" is uselessly vague. ("You're under arrest." "What's the charge?" "You did something illegal.")
  2. "Illegal immigrant" is dehumanizing. It defines someone who doesn't have immigration paperwork as an illegal person. This should offend everyone on its own merits, but there's also a legal, constitutional problem with defining someone as an illegal person.
  3. It's contrary to the 14th Amendment, which affirms that neither the federal government nor state governments may "deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." An undocumented immigrant has violated immigration requirements, but is still a legal person under the law, as is anyone under the jurisdiction of the law. The equal protection clause was written to prevent state governments from defining any human being as anything less than a legal person.

On the other hand, "undocumented immigrant" is a very useful phrase. Why? It skips the dehumanizing aspects of "illegal immigrant" and simply describes the situation at hand. An undocumented immigrant is someone who resides in a county without proper documentation.

Other Terms to Avoid

Other terms it is preferable to avoid using in place of "undocumented immigrants":

  • "Illegal aliens." A more pejorative form of "illegal immigrant." The word "alien" can be used to refer to a non-naturalized immigrant, but it also arrives with the context of its dictionary definition: "unfamiliar and disturbing or distasteful."
  • "Undocumented workers." This term is often used to refer specifically to undocumented workers, especially in a labor context, but it is not a synonym for "undocumented immigrants." When it is used as such, it is often from people who belong to a school of thought that says that undocumented immigrants should be accepted into this country because they are hardworking. The vast majority are (they have no choice; people who cross borders to make less than minimum wage tend to be), but there are undocumented immigrants who do not fall into this category, such as children, the elderly, and the severely disabled, and they, too, need advocates.
  • "Migrant workers." A migrant worker is simply someone who regularly travels in search of short-term or seasonal work. Many migrant workers are documented (quite a few are natural-born citizens), and many undocumented immigrants are not migrant workers. The migrant workers' movement certainly overlaps with the immigrants' rights movement, but it is not the same movement.
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Head, Tom. "What Is the Proper Term: Illegal or Undocumented Immigrant?" ThoughtCo, Feb. 21, 2021, thoughtco.com/illegal-immigrants-or-undocumented-immigrants-721479. Head, Tom. (2021, February 21). What Is the Proper Term: Illegal or Undocumented Immigrant? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/illegal-immigrants-or-undocumented-immigrants-721479 Head, Tom. "What Is the Proper Term: Illegal or Undocumented Immigrant?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/illegal-immigrants-or-undocumented-immigrants-721479 (accessed July 26, 2021).