Skip to main content

Guest Column: Call them 'Unauthorized'

Whether we use the word illegal or unauthorized, alien or migrant, or whether we "call it a banana," the only thing that matters is whether, and when, we enact meaningful, and comprehensive, immigration reform.

By Daniel Kowalski
Lead image for this article

To paraphrase the very model of the modern Dr. Strangelove, Donald Rumsfeld, "Would the world come to an end if we stopped using the term, 'illegal immigrant?' Answer: No." Neither would the world end if the news media kept right on using it forever, as the Associated Press prefers. It may not be all that important, in the scheme of things, but words do matter, and people do take sides on this issue, so here's my take.

The adjective "illegal" generates pejorative, negative reactions in the listener or reader. As Keith Cunningham-Parmeter explains, "human beings view the world in metaphoric terms... through metaphor, the immigrant becomes the alien, the alien becomes the illegal, and the illegal becomes the Mexican. ...[R]eferring to ... people as "illegal aliens" is equivalent to referring to defendants awaiting trial as 'convicted criminals.'"

To the question, What part of "illegal" don't you understand? I answer, every bit of it, including the distinction between jaywalking and murder, between littering and grand theft; in short, between malum prohibitum and malum in se, that is, the things we've decided to regulate vs. the things we all agree are evil.

Let's apply a little nuance and ask ourselves: Is the frail asylum-seeker fleeing political oppression in her home country just as much an illegal alien as the tough guy who has been deported three times for violent criminal convictions? How about the Japanese business executive who overstays his visitor's visa by one day? By a week? By a year? "[N]early half of all people described as 'illegal aliens' obtained their 'illegal' status by overstaying valid visas — a civil immigration violation that involves no criminal conduct whatsoever," Cunningham-Parmeter writes. Or how about the green card holder who has lived the life of the model immigrant for twenty or thirty years, only to pick up a single speeding ticket? Does the speeding ticket instantly and magically transform her into an evil 'illegal alien?' The state of Alabama has just enacted the toughest local immigration law on the books, and following its provisions some utility companies have begun to deny water and electric service to unauthorized immigrants. But why stop there? Why not enact a law to deny service to every adult in Alabama ever convicted of domestic violence? After all, what part of "illegal" don't you understand? Wouldn't driving the wife beaters from Alabama do more good than banishing its tomato pickers?

You'll notice I used the term "unauthorized." I prefer that to "undocumented" because, to be honest, many unauthorized aliens do indeed have documents — fake ones. Plus, unauthorized sends a clear message that something is wrong, without diving into the lake of punitive, pejorative metaphors. "[M]etaphors that attempt to capture the essence of immigrants will inevitably miss the mark and therefore distort," Cunningham-Parmeter writes. And, perhaps most importantly, "unauthorized" suggests the possibility of change, the ability of an authority (Congress) to change the legal status of the migrant. Even under today's statute, an unauthorized migrant may, through court order or agency decision, be granted relief from deportation through such means as asylum, cancellation of removal, and T and U visa statuses. From illegal to legal by the stroke of a pen.

Interestingly, in a break with some of my liberal kin, I don't mind the use of the word alien, for two reasons: it's part of the statute (a term of art, as we lawyers say) and I'm old enough to remember a time before space travel, when alien simply meant foreigner, rather than a dangerous green being from another galaxy. Also, I had the good fortune to learn a second language (Spanish) at a very early age, and my family traveled often to Mexico; foreign was not alien to me. Travel abroad and second language learning are excellent ways of defusing the otherness bug.

In the end, whether we use the word illegal or unauthorized, alien or migrant, or whether we "call it a banana," the only thing that matters is whether, and when, we enact meaningful, and comprehensive, immigration reform. Toward that end, let's use language that's helpful rather than harmful.


Daniel M. Kowalski has been practicing immigration law since 1985. He edits Bender's Immigration Bulletin and curates the LexisNexis Immigration Law Community, a free daily blog.

Wait! We need your help.


Explore related story topics

Demographics Immigration