Why You Shouldn't Call Them Illegal Immigrants Anymore

Description of People Living in a Country Illegally Called Dehumanizing

Activists have long bristled at the use of the term illegal immigrant to describe someone who is living in a country illegally. They say it's dehumanizing and runs against the Constitution's Fourteenth Amendment, which states that neither the federal government nor state governments may "deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

In other words, a human being can't be illegal, but certain acts can be.

"The i-word opens the door to racial profiling and violence and prevents truthful, respectful debate on immigration. No human being is 'illegal,'" states the Applied Research Center, a racial justice think tank that orchestrated a "Drop the I-Word" campaign.

So use of the term illegal immigrant has been the source of some controversy in the United States during the nation's long-running debate on immigration reform.

What should you call people living in the United States illegally?

Alternatives to Illegal Immigrant

There are several other ways the media and public have described people living in a country illegally, and many of them are considered just as insensitive or unnecessarily vague. They include terms such as illegal alien, undocumented immigrant and migrant worker.

In 2013 The Associated Press, the world's largest news-gathering operation, announced that it had banned the use of the term illegal immigrant, saying the word illegal should describe only an action.

The AP said it would described those people as living in the country illegally.

The AP changed its Stylebook entry to read:

illegal immigration Entering or residing in a country in violation of civil or criminal law. Except in direct quotes essential to the story, use illegal only to refer to an action, not a person: illegal immigration, but not illegal immigrant. Acceptable variations include living in or entering a country illegally or without legal permission.

Several other large news organizations also banned use of the term illegal immigrant, including The Los Angeles Times, ABC, Univision, NBC and CNN.

Trend Shows Decline in Use of Illegal Immigrant

The Pew Research Center found that the term illegal immigrant is still the media's most-often used way to describe foreigners living in the United States without proper documentation. The survey also found that their use of undocumented and unauthorized grew in frequency.

"Generally speaking, the trend is toward a diminishing use of the word 'illegal' to describe the people here without proper documentation," wrote the Pew Research Center's Emily Guskin in 2013.

In 2013, for example, the term illegal immigrant was used in 49 percent of stories about the subject of illegal immigration. That's a decline from a decade earlier, when the phrase was used in 62 percent of stories about that topic.

What Federal Statute Uses

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, which regulates immigration to the United States, uses the term alien instead of illegal immigrant. Likewise, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013, introduced in the 113th Congress, uses the term alien.

As Civil Liberties guide Tom Head has pointed out, alien is considered 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,'" Head writes.

In the media, however, use of illegal alien reached its low point in the mass media in 2013, dropping to 5 percent of terms used, according to the Pew Research Center.

Effort in Congress to Stop Use

U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, a Democrat from Illinois, introduced a resolution in 2013 calling on Congress to use more humane and respectful language in place of the term illegal immigrant. Rush's legislation would make it a necessity for members of Congress to use the term undocumented instead of illegal.

The resolution states, in part:

We can all stop unintentionally fueling racial profiling and violence directed toward immigrants, when we drop the word `illegal' when discussing a human being.

Previous Efforts to Remove Illegal Immigrant

President Jimmy Carter was also said to dislike the term illegal immigrant and instead used undocumented alien and undocumented immigrant.