Linguists Share Truth Behind Term ‘Illegal Immigrant’

By Janelle Tupper 11-20-2012
Dictionary Series: Illegal (
Dictionary Series: Illegal (

As it becomes increasingly clear that immigration reform will be on the political agenda this coming year, we are reminded that the words we use to discuss immigration matter. After all, they reflect our opinions and viewpoints, and they influence the way we view the world.

Last month, Sojourners joined with other groups around the country to ask the Associated Press to change the guidance in their Stylebook that allows “illegal immigrant” to be used as an acceptable term to refer to a human being.  Following these efforts, the AP  issued this response, claiming that “illegal immigrant” is an accurate, neutral term. 

According to some linguists, this might not be the case.

A recent episode of Slate’s “Lexicon Valley” linguistics podcast featured Mike Vuolo and Bob Garfield in a debate over the use of the term “illegal immigrant.” While they did not reach a conclusion one way or the other, it did raise a lot of red flags and ideas worth considering.

To begin with, “illegal immigrant” is not a neutral term. It is used mostly by conservative news outlets and politicians, which links the terminology with a specific political position. In fact, the well-known strategist Frank Luntz recommended the term “illegal immigrant” in the mid-2000s as a tool for conservatives in the immigration debate at the time.

The program also gave an overview of the history of “illegal immigrant,” saying that it was first used in the 1930s to describe Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany.  In the United States, it came into use in the 1960s, after the long-standing Bracero guest worker program ended. The migrant workers that businesses relied on no longer had legal permission to be in the country, and thus became “illegal.” However, “illegal” and “undocumented” were used interchangeably in the following decades.

Another note: two-thirds of ethnically motivated hate crimes are directed at Latinos. The linguists on the program attribute this directly to the use of the term “illegal” and the way it seeks to define a person, and, in fact, a population, by their migration status.

That doesn’t sound like a neutral, accurate term to me.

Janelle Tupper is Campaigns Assistant for Sojourners.

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