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Illegal Alien or Undocumented Immigrant

What's in a Name?

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Does the word "illegal" degrade and alienate those who are in the country without legal permission? Although the term is still used by USCIS and other government agencies, there is growing support to substitute "undocumented" for "illegal."

In September 2009, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) asked the news media to stop using the term "illegals" to refer to undocumented immigrants. NAHJ suggested that use of the term in mainstream media legitimizes the term causing it to become an accepted part of the public's lexicon, which only serves to alienate undocumented people. From Executive Director Iván Román: “Using these terms not only distorts the [immigration] debate, but it takes away their identities as individuals and human beings. When journalists do that, it’s that much easier to treat them unfairly and not give them an equal voice in the controversy.” The association suggests substituting "undocumented immigrant" or "undocumented worker" in place of "illegal alien."

Read most any dictionary and you'll find the word "alien" defined as someone from a foreign country, but NAHJ says that "aliens" is a bureaucratic term, and the group objects to its use when referring to immigrants, calling it "degrading." "It casts them as adverse, strange beings, inhuman outsiders who come to the U.S. with questionable motivations."

The push to do away with the term illegal is not limited to immigrant rights groups. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor made history on December 8, 2009 when she chose the term "undocumented immigrant" over "illegal immigrant" in her first Supreme Court opinion.

According to The New York Times, the term "illegal immigrant" has appeared in a dozen Supreme Court decisions while the term "undocumented immigrant" has, up until Judge Sotomayor's use of the term, never been used. It may seem like a small thing--using one word instead of another--but the deliberate choice of one word over another in the nation's highest court does not go unnoticed.

Sources: The National Association of Hispanic Journalists, Supreme Court of the United States, The New York Times

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