That’s how Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts referred to individuals lacking the proper documents to be in the country during a recent hearing on DAPA (Deferred Action for parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents).
“Alien” is the legal term to describe these individuals, but Justice Sonia Sotomayor also referred to them as “undocumented immigrants.” She objected to the phrase “illegal immigrants”, which she considers too harsh. Justice Sonia Sotomayor even explained that “illegal immigrants” associates them with “drug addicts, thieves, and murderers.”
The English language is extremely rich but at times it’s also not capable of providing us with “le mot juste,” as Gustave Flaubert would say.
The legal term “alien” may be accurate in the justice system, but certainly ineffective in everyday usage. Illegal alien is even much worse since it conjures the images of extraterrestrials, contrasting them with other aliens who do have the right to be on earth and in the US.
When I first came to the US in the late 1960’s, I carried a green card officially labeled “alien registration card.” Not knowing English, “alien” meant nothing to me. Now I find the term inaccurate and also deeply offensive.
Also offensive are other terms used to label individuals who are in the US without legal papers. The phrase “illegal immigrants” is favored by conservatives since it matches their political agenda. These people are criminals whose illegal act goes far beyond the lack of appropriate documents to be in the US. The journey from “illegal immigrant” to serious criminal is not very far, as Justice Sotomayor suggested. In an interview with ABC News, former Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, could not understand all the fuss about the term “illegal immigrants.” Brewer went on to say that we “believe in the rule of law… and we certainly can’t afford the criminal element, with Arizona having to deal with drug cartels.” Brewer suggested that all “illegal immigrants” are involved in the drug trade. Donald Trump, as is well known, went even further, labeling illegal immigrants “rapists and murderers.”
Actually, the crime committed by entering the US without proper papers is a civil, not a criminal offense; it’s a misdemeanor punishable by deportation. Thus “illegal immigrant” in addition to being offensive, divisive, and dehumanizing, is also far from being accurate. A person cannot be labeled illegal. It’s the action that may be illegal. Thus we don’t use illegal drivers, illegal filers, illegal child molesters, etc. to identify people who have committed these kinds of crimes. Nor do we tack on the label illegal to companies which hire workers who lack proper documents. When the phrase “illegal immigrants” is used we suggest that the people are illegal. It’s an adjective which is only used to describe immigrants and no one else. Human beings, though, are not illegal or legal. They are human beings.
Since the phrase “illegal immigrants” is being viewed more and more in a negative light, the Associated Press, NBC, ABC, and USA Today have banned its use. The New York Times did not go that far but encourages reporters and editors to use alternatives, focusing on actions not the person.
A more acceptable and neutral replacement is “undocumented workers.” This phrase takes away much of the negative charge of “illegal” yet it’s also not completely accurate because it includes children brought into the US by their parents and some other people who may not be working.
Recognizing that the term “illegal aliens” applied to human beings is inappropriate, the Library of Congress changed the subject heading to “undocumented immigrants, noncitizens, and unauthorized immigrants.” The more accurate phrase, though, is “unauthorized immigrants,” which can be comprehensive and is free of the negative nuances.
The movement away from “illegal aliens” and “illegal immigrants” is certainly welcome because it reaches into the fundamental truth about immigrants as human beings.
As Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner stated, “No human being is illegal.”
— Domenico Maceri, Ph.D., UC Santa Barbara, is a freelance writer living in San Luis Obispo.