Changing our Immigrant Lexicon

“We have to watch who we hire” said the woman. “We can’t have a bunch of illegals hired or else we’ll be liable”

And I saw red. The color I have seen every time I hear someone use the term “illegals” for the past decade.

“By becoming judge, jury and executioner, you dehumanize the individual and generate animosity toward them.” Charles Garcia

It doesn’t take a reader much time in Communicating Across Boundaries to recognize that I work and identify with many immigrants. I live in an immigrant neighborhood, I have conversations daily with immigrants, and I am most at home when in a group of immigrants. I look similar to those of the majority population but my worldview has a different shape to it – I am an invisible immigrant.

And with this comes a desire for fairness and a strong sense of advocacy for immigrant communities.

I am convinced that fairness and advocacy includes examining our lexicon when it comes to immigrants and immigration. We all know the power of words; they shape us daily. And we have used the word “illegals” referring to people long enough. They are not illegals. They are undocumented people; people without the proper papers and documents required by a government. They may have committed illegal acts but a person cannot be illegal.

The word illegal alien holds even more offense. While I understand the word ‘alien’ to have been in wide use since Biblical times, in combining the two words we paint a picture of an unlawful creature from Mars.

I am not arguing the importance and merits of a solid immigration policy; what I am arguing is the terms and words that go into that policy. Because words make all the difference in our attitudes and decisions to treat people as human beings or as “other”.

In an excellent piece posted on CNN Opinion Charles Garcia goes as far as to call the words “illegal alien” or “illegal immigrant” racial slurs.

“When you label someone an “illegal alien” or “illegal immigrant” or just plain “illegal,” you are effectively saying the individual, as opposed to the actions the person has taken, is unlawful. The terms imply the very existence of an unauthorized migrant in America is criminal.” (Why ‘Illegal Immigrant’ is a Slur, CNN Opinion, July 6)

His points are well made. Significant he says is that the Supreme Court, in handing down their decision on immigration, did not use this biased language except in quoting other sources.

Dehumanizing those men, women and children who are in this country without proper documentation does nothing to help promote good policy and everything to create an angry “us” vs. “them” dialogue.

It’s time to change the lexicon and take out words that make creating fair policy even harder. So next time someone uses the word ‘illegals’ I challenge you to say to them “You mean people without proper documentation of their right to be here?”

And through changing our lexicon, may we be changed and pray for wisdom and humanity to be at the heart of the discussion.

23 thoughts on “Changing our Immigrant Lexicon

  1. Just one comment… confirms my opinion (since in the KJV Bible 1 Pet 2:11 & Heb 11:13 the word ‘alien’ is used of all believers) that the word was used beginning in the 14th century to mean “”strange, foreign,” from O.Fr. alien, from L. alienus “of or belonging to another””. All of which confirms that though people are not ‘from’ a certain place (or by customs/culture/practice may not fit in well), they nevertheless have eternal value & existence, and should be treated with dignity as equals.


    1. Thanks Anne – good thoughts and great info on the origin of the word. “No longer strangers, no longer aliens, but now we are citizens…” comes to mind with your comment. goes with your wonderful post.


  2. When the resource “human manpower” is needed to foster a prospering economy than all to often illegal immigration is silently accepted and promoted. Yet when an economy no longer prospers the silent acceptance and promotion turns ugly.
    Where African slaves also considered “illegal aliens”? After all they were not resident aliens when they were forcefully brought to America. I just wonder.


    1. this brings up an important piece. I recently saw a study that addressed this quite comprehensively – wish I had kept a copy as I could link it, but yes manpower figures into the political discussion of this all the time.


  3. Ahhhh….a loaded discussion indeed. I was somewhat mistified about the idea that the word “alien” came from literature about outer space. The word has been part of our language far, far longer than that genre. I, myself, have been referred to as a “resident alien” on many occasions in other countries and in different times. I never found it offensive; it was a technical term. It meant I was living/residing in a country which was not my own, in one where I did hold citizenship. It was my official status in a given country, at a given time. I am sure that when you were growing up in Pakistan, the government there referred to you similarly. Probably most governments still use the same technical term. It was a commonly accepted term worldwide. All my life, an alien, wherever he was, or whoever he was, was someone without citizenship in the country where he was residing. PERIOD. Not a loaded statement or “colored” statement at all; just a statement of fact. Therefore, anyone living here today who is not a citizen is an alien, a term one even finds used in our English language Bibles, where we are admonished to be kind to aliens.

    An “illegal alien” is simply a person who is residing in a country which he has entered outside the legal procedures for entry or residency, and who would be in trouble with the authorities if his presence were discovered by them. It does not necessarily mean people from “south of the border” living in the U.S. There are many people all over the world with such status and I have known (and do know) some of them. I believe in the dignity of all persons as we are all God’s creation, and strive to treat everyone with politeness and respect. But that does not mean I subscribe to “political correctness,” or politically correct speech which is often a distortion of truth even to the point of turning meaning inside out. To say a person is an “undocumented worker” implies that he has a minor problem, that he has a right to be here, and just needs to clear up some paperwork. That is actually not true, and it is unfair and incorrect to encourage such an attitude or belief, particularly among those who have entered the country outside the law. Such a position/attitude creates even more problems for them and for the host country. Respect for the law is one of the bulwarks of our society. It is not an insignificant or minor issue. It creates the orderliness that allows our society to prosper, for the economy to grow, and our citizens to enjoy relative safety. In other words, it is one of the things that has made our country the attractive magnet that it is and whose benefits we all enjoy. If you have lived in other countries, you know what sort of conditions emerge when there is no or limited respect for the law. Corruption abounds, there is limited prosperity for business cannot grow in uncertain environments, and safety is limited or nonexistent. Most of the people crossing our borders illegally are doing so out of a desire for a better life, or out of desperate need, and emerging from societies where respect for the law is limited. Those mindsets do not stay behind when they cross the border. It has been a part of their thinking and manoeuvering in their own cultures from birth….the way things are done! To start off in our country with the attitude of “It is no big deal.” or “I have a right.” or “How dare you refer to me as an ‘illegal alien.’ ” is NOT a good way to begin a new life in a law respecting society. After all, there are many, many people who are desperate who are going through the correct channels everyday all around the world….for YEARS to gain lawful entry. I will end by saying that I am kind to the illegal aliens I know and sympathetic to their plight, and proud of the fact that our nation takes in more legal immigrants each year than any other… a huge margin.


    1. Kathy – one of the things I love about your comments is how articulate you are and the thoughtfulness you put into them. So…on political correctness – I share your frustration with this and agree that it can make dialogue harder rather than easier. I have never thought of this as an issue of political correctness but you may be right. I think the use of “illegals” does not aid the discussion and I do think it allows people to have an attitude of disdain. That said, your point on the word ‘alien’ is well taken and you’re right – since Biblical times this word has been used. I think my worry is that there is something to the wording that makes people think this is a criminal offense where even the Supreme Court recognized it is not criminal to overstay your visa. I overstayed a visa in Pakistan and was deported (story to come in a blog post!!) I was not considered a criminal and not treated as such but was asked to leave.
      The other pieces of your comment are part of the broader discussion – and it’s huge. Certainly Texas is a state that is one of the top 5 residency states for immigrants from Central America and Mexico so you face the reality more than we in Massachusetts (Arizona was much like Texas in this) The fact that the basic laws of immigration in place are still the ones that were crafted in the 1960’s with some changes in the 80’s is problematic. One of the things I like about what you bring up is that while it is critical to look at the human rights issue, there is also the right of a society to create laws. This is what makes the whole thing so complex. Part of dialogue on this issue is conversations like this where there is an understanding that rights of the person and rights of the society are both at play. Wish we could get together for coffee over this one – I am so grateful for your voice.


      1. This whole immigration issue makes me sad. I cannot fathom living in a country that I long to escape. However, my great-grandparents and grandparents could and I grew up hearing stories about it. They were chased out of their home during WWI and at the end of the war my grandfather was released from a Siberian prison. They knew the importance of immigrating legally and went about the proper channels to do so.

        “there is something to the wording that makes people think this is a criminal offense where even the Supreme Court recognized it is not criminal to overstay your visa”

        This sentence seems to address two different issues – 1. being in the country without proper documentation and, 2. overstaying a visa. If someone is here with a visa, they are here with permission or legally. If someone is here without proper identification, they here without permission or illegally.

        As far as people having an attitude of disdain, I would guess that people had disdain for people who break the law long before the word “illegals” came into play. Breaking the law is a crime and most people do have a disdain for people who break the law or commit crimes no matter what the crime committed is.

        Now, that being said, I believe we should always be respectful in how we treat people, period, no matter their actions. God loves everyone and He commands the same of us. Since we are human, we don’t always love like we should. Praise God for his forgiveness when we repent so we can try again to love like He does.


    2. Very well said. If I may add to your comments.

      As a Californian I have come in contact with many illegal aliens. You can come up with another term but undocumented is not it. These people came here illegally not without documents. Someone who performs surgery without a license is an illegal surgeon. Because it rarely happens we do not need to shorten the phrase so we may refer to them as being unlicensed but it is also made clear that they are illegally performing surgery. If we just said they were unlicensed (same as undocumented for this discussion) that could mean that they went to medical school but haven’t yet passed the boards to get a license. That’s a big difference from having no training in surgery but operating anyway. The people who are labeled “illegal” are not waiting for documentation they have none but chose to “perform surgery” anyway.

      The issue that we have particularly if you live in an area with so many illegal aliens is that many of us come in contact with these people frequently. We find that they are very nice hard working people who want nothing more than a better life particularly for their children. However, to do that they have to constantly break the law. Of course they broke the law to come here. Then they break the law and drive. Most of the time they break the law and drive with no insurance. Despite what was said in another post very few file tax returns and as we’ve just learned many who do are cheating the system as the IRS has reported that over 4.2 billion dollars was sent to illegals who declared children they either didn’t have or are still in their country of origin. Although it’s not illegal they send their children (avg 4.2 to 2.1 for citizens) to school which they pay very little in property taxes to cover the cost. And few have any medical insurance so taxpayers pick up those costs.

      When they drive they are 5 times more likely to cause a fatal accident and 5 times more likely to drive drunk. When they are in a collision they flee 50% of the time. (Source: AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety)

      They are treated like modern day slaves but the only beneficiaries of that substantial abuse is the businesses that hire them.

      So I see why good people who know nothing of what is really happening, know nothing of the horrible consequences of illegal immigration think it is demeaning to call anyone illegal. Those of us who have either been negatively impacted or have studied the situation do not feel the necessity to be politically correct.

      BTW, politically I am a lifelong liberal far to the left of President Obama and any of our current house or senate members with the possible exception of Bernie Sanders.


      1. Thanks for coming by Communicating Across Boundaries and weighing in on a huge issue. California absolutely faces this issue in a way that many states do not. I lived in Arizona for 5 years and yes, the issue of undocumented people is huge. I’d be interested to see your sources on what you state above. The sources I’ve studied that include Alan Greenspan and Frances Lipman don’t give the same picture that you’ve given in your comment. Specifically Frances Lipman says: E]very empirical study of illegals’ economic impact demonstrates the opposite: undocumenteds actually contribute more to public coffers in taxes than they cost in social services. Moreover, undocumented immigrants contribute to the U.S. economy through their investments and consumption of goods and services; filling of millions of essential worker positions resulting in subsidiary job creation, increased productivity and lower costs of goods and services; and unrequited contributions to Social Security, Medicare and unemployment insurance programs. Eighty-five percent of eminent economists surveyed [according to the Dec. 1995 study by Julian L. Simon, “Immigration, the Demographic & Economic Facts,” of the Cato Institute and the National Immigration Forum] have concluded that undocumented immigrants have had a positive (seventy-four percent) or neutral (eleven percent)
        Alan Greenspan says much the same
        In terms of taxes my understanding is that this varies widely and while some say the undocumented population doesn’t pay their taxes, others unequivocally disagree.
        One thing we all agree on is the need for reform and you and I can agree to disagree on the terminology. I still hold to what I said – that people are not illegal – actions are illegal.


  4. Thank you, thank you for posting this, Marilyn. I work in a law firm where a lot of our clients are undocumented workers. Most are hard working, law abiding tax payers with families who add to the communities they live in. I agree that the terms “illegal” and “alien” are racial slurs, hurtful and hateful.

    We are both “hidden immigrants” in our own country. I totally relate to that statement. :)


    1. The Hidden Immigrant thing is huge isn’t it? It affects my thinking on every issue. Thanks so much for weighing in based on your experience. It is not the first time that words have created attitudes and while I cringe and feel that too much political correctness does nothing to help conversation – I don’t feel the term “illegals” is a good word for dialogue – thanks again.


  5. Thank you for your thoughts on this very electrifying issue. Everyone one of us at some point has broken the law and done something “illegal” – speeding, jay-walking, not using a turn signal, etc. Sometimes even habitually and continually. But we don’t call ourselves “illegals.” We reserve that for other people who are “worse” than us. Reminds me of “good sinners” and “bad sinners.” We’re all sinners.


    1. Said so well! Thank you for this insightful comment. It is an ‘electrifying’ issue and yet one that I believe we are called to address with humanity and compassion even as we recognize the need for policy.


    1. You are lovely and I would be horrible in office – mostly because I am so bad at taking criticism! Thank you for this comment. I’ve hesitated writing about immigration but you know what it’s like when the issue gnaws at you….!


  6. Having been called an “intended immigrant” and more recently a “resident alien”— I can heartily testify that words matter. Stories matter. Labels matter. This issue stirs me up every time. Don’t get me started…….!!!!!


    1. And stirred up you should be! You speak with passion, knowledge and a heart for truth – those things matter and you have a valuable voice! So what I’m indirectly asking for is a longer comment or blog post!!


  7. Yes. Thank you! I lived and worked in Southern California, where the immigration issue is a huge one. I had relatives who talked in pretty horrible terms, slinging the word “illegals” left and right. These are real people. Many of the ones I met in the hospital were men and women who had a sick child, uprooted their lives and carried them in their arms across the border, in order to get medical treatment. My relatives would have done the same thing, if they were put in a similar position. It is a very complex issue, and deserves accurate, respectful language– at the very least.


    1. I remember you sharing about working in Southern California – powerful stories. You are so right that it is a complex issue – and muddying the language makes it more complex. I’d love to hear your observations on the UK and if immigration is an issue or non issue there.


    1. Tara, thank you! It’s amazing what the words we use, or don’t use, reveal about us. I am so grateful you came by because in one short day I’ve fallen in love with your beautiful family in Haiti. I have fond memories of a trip to Haiti years ago and ached to go back during the earthquake for public health (the Boston area has a strong connection through Paul Farmer and Partners in Health) I was unable to go but ended up in Pakistan instead. That’s a long way of saying thank you for coming by!


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