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«ABSTRACT This article offers a terminological reflection on the expression “illegal immigrant.” In particular, it argues against the arbitrary ...»

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Undocumented vs. Illegal Migrant:

Towards Terminological Coherence

Mila Paspalanova

Instituto Tecnológico de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey

Campus Ciudad de México


This article offers a terminological reflection on the expression “illegal immigrant.”

In particular, it argues against the arbitrary choice of terminology used to refer to

undocumented migration in academic and scientific texts. On the basis of certain legal, linguistic, and sociopolitical concerns, it suggests that the use of “illegal migrant/ alien” should be seriously reconsidered and replaced with alternative terms, such as “undocumented” or “irregular immigrant,” which are both terminologically correct and lack the negative social implications of the phrase “illegal immigrant/alien” or “clandestine alien”.

Keywords: 1. undocumented migrants, 2. irregular migrants, 3. terminology, 4. con- ceptual analysis, 5. “illegal migrants”.


El propósito de este artículo es ofrecer una reflexión terminológica acerca de la expre- sión “migrantes ilegales”. En particular, trata sobre el uso arbitrario de la terminología empleada para referirse a la migración indocumentada en textos académicos y cientí- ficos. Tomando en consideración argumentos jurídicos, lingüísticos y sociopolíticos, se señala que expresiones como “migrante ilegal” o “migrante clandestino” deben considerarse seriamente y sustituirse con términos alternativos, tales como “migrante irregular” o “migrante indocumentado”, los que, además de ser conceptualmente correctos, son términos que evitan las implicaciones sociales negativas que tienen las otras expresiones.

Palabras clave: 1. migrantes indocumentados, 2. migrantes irregulares, 3. termino- logía, 4. análisis conceptual, 5. “migrantes ilegales”.

MIGRACIONES INTERNACIONALES, VOL. 4, NÚM. 3, ENERO-JUNIO DE 2008 MI-14.indd 79 11/22/2007 9:53:34 AM 80 MIGRACIONES INTERNACIONALES, VOL. 4, NÚM. 3, ENERO-JUNIO DE 2008 Even though the phenomenon of undocumented migration has existed for over a century, there is still no standard or uniformly accepted term to refer to undocumented migrants. The terminology adopted by migration resear- chers, governments and journalists differs substantially (e.g. illegal migrants, illegals, undocumented migrants, etc.) and is rarely based on a substantive conceptual justification of the selection of one term over another.

The impact of the media in promoting a predominant terminology cannot be underestimated. A brief review of the U.S. press, which can be regarded as one of the most powerful instruments for promoting popular terminology in the English language, reveals that newspapers consistently adopt and advocate the expression “illegal immigrant or alien” over “undocumented migrant”. For example, since 1981, in The New York Times articles, the term “undocumented migrant” has been used 168 times, “illegal migrant” 896 times and “illegal alien/s” 5 635 times.1 However, the media or government’s choice of one type of expression to describe migrants without possession of legal residence and/or working documents does not imply the conceptual correctness of the latter.

Nevertheless, the media and political bodies have the power to institutionalize certain terminology, even if it is incorrect. This article therefore seeks to elaborate on the conceptual analysis of the terms “illegal” vs “undocumented/irregular” migrant and defend the adoption of the term “undocumented/irregular migrant” at least in academic literature.

Having witnessed and foreseen the terminological problems outlined above and subsequently addressed in the text, in 1975 the UN General Assembly recommended that all UN bodies use the term “non-documented or irregular migrants/workers” as a standard (UN, 1975). Likewise, in its 1998 Recommendations on Statistics of International Migration, the United Nations defines “...foreigners who violate the rules of admission of the receiving country and are deportable, as well as foreign persons attempting to seek asylum but who are not allowed to file an application and are not permitted to stay in the receiving country on any other grounds” as “Citizens departing without the admission documents required by the country of destination” and “Foreigners whose entry or stay is not sanctioned” (UN, 1998:23). Within this same publication, the UN only uses 1 Similarly, over the past two months, The Washington Post has included 41 references to undocumented migrants, 13 to “illegal aliens” and 176 to “illegal immigrants”, whereas in The Daily Herald (Chicago) the term “undocumented migrants” does not appear at all. Since 2005, The New York Daily News has used the term “undocumented migrant” 76 times, “illegal immigrant” 104 times and “illegal aliens” 31 times.

MI-14.indd 80 11/22/2007 9:53:34 AM


the terms “undocumented migrants” (p. 94) or foreigners in an irregular situation (e.g., pp. 24, 32, 62, and 93).

The above recommendations, however, have a limited influence outside the UN and have only been adopted by certain international organizations and NGOs. Moreover, these recommendations are not strictly respected even in the academic contributions made by members of UN bodies. For example, in an article on the policy responses to irregular migration in Africa and Asia, Ellen Brenan, (United Nations Population Division), specifying that the views contained in the article are hers alone and do not reflect necessarily those of the United Nations, mentions in a footnote that the terms used to refer to foreigners residing or working in a third country in contravention of its nationals laws are “undocumented worker”, “illegal migrant” or “illegal immigrant”. Nevertheless, in the body text of the article the author only uses the term “illegal migrant” (Brenan, 1984).

The most frequently adopted designations in non-UN publications of an academic nature include “illegal (im)migrant”, “illegal”, “illegal alien”, “clandestine”, “irregular (im)migrant”, “irregular alien”, “undocumented immigrant”, “without papers”, and “wetbacks” or mojados the latter referring to certain cases of undocumented Mexican-U.S. migration.

The arbitrary use of these terms and the lack of agreement regarding terminological coherence are exemplified in numerous scientific publications in the field of irregular migration. A review of two major periodicals for disseminating research results on international migration: Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies and International Migration Review, shows that most of the publications on irregular migration denominated the respective group of migrants “illegal migrants” or “illegal aliens” (in over 45% of cases). Approximately 30% of the authors classify migrants as “undocumented” and finally, on average, 14% of the authors use “illegal” and “undocumented” migrant synonyms.

Very rarely does an author justify the use of one term over another.

Usually the terms are used synonymously, although there is a tendency never to use the terms “illegal” and “alien” in the same text with “undocumented” or “without papers”.

One trend, however, has attracted attention: migrants are always categorized as “illegal” in contexts relating migration to criminality, irregular working practices, and drug dealing (e.g. Friman, 2001) or in contexts relating to migration control and providing assistance to undocumented migrants (e.g. Pantoja, 2006).

MI-14.indd 81 11/22/2007 9:53:35 AM 82 MIGRACIONES INTERNACIONALES, VOL. 4, NÚM. 3, ENERO-JUNIO DE 2008 For a case study exploring this tendency, the reader could refer to the work of Fabio Quassoli (2004), who shows how in Italy, police use the category of ‘illegal/criminal immigrant’ as a categorisation device both for administrative purposes, to check the formal requirements of immigrants requesting residence permits — and for crime prevention and repression.

This article argues against the use of “illegal” and “alien” or any combination involving one of these words, firstly because when used to refer to people they are devoid of meaning from a legal and a linguistic perspective, in other words, they are inaccurate.

Secondly, the use of these terms is criticized because of their negative social and political connotations.

Thirdly, these words serve as powerful tools for manipulating public opinion because these concepts construct what Charles Stevenson (1969:33) calls “persuasive definitions,” where the emotive meaning of the word has the power to displace the descriptive meaning;2 and in extreme cases, can equate the human right to migration3 with a criminal act.

The main criticism of “illegal” and “alien” is based on the fact that only an act can be illegal whereas a person cannot be “illegal” or “criminal”. It is the act that falls under the provisions of the penal (in the case of criminal offences) or administrative (in the case of non-criminal offences) code of a country and it is respectively punished, rather than the person per se. This legal reasoning is one of the elements that distinguishes democratic constitutional states (which have a democratic penal law derived from the act) from totalitarian regimes (which have an author-driven penal law), such as the national socialist regime in Germany, or the Stalinist regime in Russia, where individuals, rather than acts, were prosecuted (Ferrajoli, 2001; Roxin, 1992).

Another argument against the use of “illegal immigrant” could be formulated through an examination of the definition of “illegal”. According to Webster’s Dictionary (1943) “illegal” means “contrary to law, unlawful” and similarly the most recent edition of the Merriam Webster Dictionary (2005), defines “illegal” as “not according to or 2 The emotive meanings of ethical judgments are normally constructed with high levels of irrationality.

3 The right to migration has been recognized and codified in Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UN, 1948) according to which (1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state; and (2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

–  –  –

is one of the main weapons used in the political campaigns of extreme rightwing parties across the world, particularly in Europe.

We are all also aware of the fact that undocumented immigrants are like a disposable “tool”, since they are the best and easiest scapegoat at times of national economic recession, yet they are greatly in demand (and respectively tolerated, not prosecuted and even actively recruited) during periods of industrial and agricultural boom when there is a need to supplement the work force (Stoddard, 1976). In this context, labeling the undocumented migrant in a derogatory way, which implies criminality, has negative consequences, primarily for the migrant and particularly when society experiences anti-immigrant sentiments.

For the first and, unfortunately, only time, this fact was explicitly addressed in Europe by Claude-Valentine Marie (2003) who condemns the use of the word “clandestine” to refer to foreigners living illegally in a country not just for reasons of “nice semantics”, but because the words used to refer to a given population or situation influence the way the latter are regarded and, most importantly, the political philosophy governing the way they are dealt with. The author stresses that: “...the term “clandestine” has the major effect of strengthening the public perception that migrants themselves generate crime and are a potential “threat,” thus seeming to justify their situation being dealt with by policing alone, and a policy in which a rationale of security prevails over all others” (Marie, 2003:9, emphasis added).

By intentionally using words such as “illegal” or “clandestine” to refer to people, political attention in Europe has shifted from unbiased observation, description, and subsequent management of undocumented migration, to a strongly biased redefinition of a major part of international migration. This redefinition depicts immigrants as a threat to the European Union and as criminals, not because of their nature per se but because of the mechanisms introduced to protect Europe against them.

Some academics, however (e.g. Polinard et al., 1984:782), ironically justify their preference for the term “illegal aliens” precisely “because of its widespread use in the media in the coverage of immigration issues”.

Such an argument hardly reflects the media’s reliability or its capacity to institute unbiased terminology, nor does it consider the consequences of allowing the media’s preferences, as stimulated by public opinion, to determine linguistic usage in academia.

Here we will use one example to illustrate how easily and tenuously derogatory terms referring to undocumented migrants are promoted

–  –  –

migration is discussed, one can see the tendency to criminalize the act of residing in a state without the necessary documentation.

Moreover, this is done without considering provisional measures for assessing the cases in which an undocumented migrant has indeed broken an immigration law as opposed to the cases where the migrant has been a victim of a sluggish reception system that has, de facto, transformed him or her into either an undocumented worker during the asylum application’s processing or into an irregular migrant after the application was rejected. The latter case refers to the fact that undocumented work is a natural response to the length of time required for assessing an asylum application, which can last up to five or even seven years, during which time asylum seekers in most countries have no formal right to work.

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