Illegal Alien or "Undocumented Immigrant?"

America uses the term “illegal alien” to describe someone in our country in violation of our immigration laws not to demean someone, but rather because it is the correct, and legally recognized, term.

The enablers of illegal aliens have engaged in a “political correctness” campaign in an attempt to suppress use of the legally recognized term “illegal alien” often asserting that “a person cannot be illegal.” Their alternative term is “undocumented immigrant.” This term blurs the distinction between legally admitted immigrants and those who have sneaked into the country or chosen to violate the terms of a legal entry. They have even gone so far as to advance their “political correctness” efforts in legal journals and in the courts.

An alien's unauthorized presence in the United States is not a crime under the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1952 …. Thus many people find the term undocumented alien preferable to illegal alien, since the former avoid the implication that one's unauthorized presence in the United States is a crime.

Elizabeth Hull, Undocumented Aliens and the Equal Protection Clause, 48 Brook. L. Rev. 43, 43 n.2 (1981).

The court's use of the term "illegal alien" in the Esparza-Mendoza opinion has been criticized as "pejorative."

Romero, Victor C., Alienated: Immigrant Rights, the Constitution, and Equality in America (2005)

A clear rejection of this effort may be found in the Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage.1

“Illegal alien” is the legally precise and preferred term: The usual and preferable term in American English is illegal alien. The other forms have arisen as needless euphemisms, and should be avoided as near-gobbledygook. The problem with undocumented is that it is intended to mean, by those who use it in this phrase, "not having the requisite documents to enter or stay in a country legally. But the word strongly suggests "unaccounted for" to those unfamiliar with this quasi-legal jargon, and it may therefore obscure the meaning.

That statement is only equivocally correct, however: although illegal aliens' presence in the country is no crime, their entry into the country is. As Justice Brennan wrote in Plyler v. Doe,… "Unsanctioned entry in the United States is a crime, 8 U.S.C. € 1325…."2 Moreover, it is wrong to equal illegality with criminality, inasmuch as many illegal acts are not criminal. Illegal alien is not an opprobrious epithet: it describes one present in a country in violation of the immigration laws (hence "illegal").3

June 2009

  1. Garner, Brian A., Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage, Second Edition, 2001.
  2. 457 U.S. 202, 205, 102 S. Ct. 2382, 72 L. Ed. 2d 786 (1982) v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202, 205, 102 S. Ct. 2382, 72 L. Ed. 2d 786 (1982)
  3. United States v. Atienzo, 2005 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 31652 (D. Utah 2005)