Are illegal immigrants job thieves?

The nomenclature for illegal immigrants page on this site has a summary of the major terminological battles about the labeling of people who cross borders illegally or overstay their visas. Restrictionists prefer to use the term “illegal alien” which is sometimes shortened to “illegal.” Among the criticisms that have been raised regarding this term is that, even if you care a lot about the legal versus illegal distinction and are unimpressed by the moral and practical counter-arguments, it is still inaccurate to call a person an “illegal” because illegality refers to an action rather than to a person. The argument is made, for instance, in this article on Diversity Inc.

Sophisticated restrictionists would no doubt counter that, obviously, discerning thinkers on the issue can understand the difference between illegal presence in a particular country and being an illegal person. Thus, when language change advocates argue against the use of the word “illegal” they are underestimating the intellectual sophistication of the people using these terms. This may well be the case, but I find at least one piece of evidence that points in the other direction: the use of the term “job thieves” for those illegal immigrants who find jobs.

I first encountered the term in a fascinating and illuminative piece by the courageous anti-immigration activist Brenda Walker for VDARE titled Sign Of “Improved Economy”—Media Happily Proclaim Illegal Mexicans Are Coming Again. (Walker is an outspoken critic of murders and other crimes committed by illegal immigrants and maintains a website here that sheds light on this important issue. While I’m sympathetic to criticism of violent and property crime, and admire Walker’s courage in raising this issue, I’m more skeptical of her singling out immigrants, particularly considering that the statistics suggest that she could better achieve her noble goal of reducing crime by broadening her focus to include crimes by US natives. But that’s a minor quibble).

In her piece, Walker uses two interesting terms for illegal immigrants that I hadn’t encountered in the past: “pests” and “job thieves.” I was naturally curious about the extent to which this terminology was unique to Walker. Turning to Google, I discovered that “pest” as a synonym for illegal immigrant was quite rare. In fact, the only other use of this metaphor I could find was a Yahoo! Answers question. I will therefore refrain from critiquing this choice of terminology, because I share Bryan Caplan’s rule of thumb:

As a rule, I do not respond to positions that are neither plausible nor popular.

However, “job thieves” seems to be a relatively popular description of illegal immigrants, so it would be incumbent upon me to respond to this choice of terminology. A quick Google search reveals many hits for “illegal immigrants” “job thieves” and a cursory glance suggests that about half these hits are written by people supportive, rather than critical, of the term. Walker has used the term in previous writings such as here, here, and here. Other examples revealed from quick searching include a letter from a VDARE reader, a blog tag titled “job thieves” on a fascinating pro-deportation blog, and a blog post by James Fulford critiquing a decision to grant work permits to illegal immigrants. I’m linking to all of these just to make clear that my critique of the “job thief” terminology is not merely about knocking down a straw man argument.

How might one evaluate the “job thief” claim? One could look at the general economic theory regarding the effect of immigration on native employment or wages. One could look at US-specific data and discussion if the restrictionists are making arguments from the US perspective. One might critique the claims of restrictionists about how immigrants are taking US jobs. Here, I try to do something different. I argue that even if restrictionists are right that illegal immigration is morally wrong, and that immigrants taking up jobs deprives natives of jobs, the term “job thief” is still inaccurate and inappropriate.

Consider the following analogy. Suppose a shopping mall closes down at 9 PM every day. You arrive at the mall at 9:15 PM, and discover that although the mall is closed, you can enter the building. One of the shops in the mall is in the process of closing down, but you walk in and the sales clerk agrees to sell you a loaf of bread. Does this make you a “bread thief?” You entered without, even against authorization. You broke the “law” of the shopping mall and the individual shop. Yet, the specific purchase decision you made was made consensually between you and the sales clerk, who, presumably, represents the interests of the shop.

We can push this analogy a little further. Suppose the next day, the shop runs out of loaves of bread of the brand you had purchased. And at least one person who was hoping to buy the bread that day is unable to buy it because of you — at least, unable to buy it until the next shipment of bread arrives. In a very real sense, you broke a law — the posted hours of the shopping mall and of the shop — and deprived a law-abiding customer of his bread. Would this make you a bread thief?

I would argue against it. Perhaps entering the shopping mall and the shop when it was supposed to be closed makes you (presumptively) a trespasser. But being a trespasser is a very different crime than being a thief. Theft involves using force, fraud, or secrecy to take something that belongs to another person (or entity) against that person’s (or entity’s) will. You do not fit the definition of a thief here. The fact that you deprived a future customer of his/her bread does not mean you stole the bread from that customer, because that bread didn’t “belong” to the future customer until he/she actually purchased it.

The analogy with illegal immigration is clear. Illegal immigrants violate the posted laws of the United States regarding entry. But as long as their actual employment contracts are consensual decisions between them and their employers, they are not stealing jobs. In fact, it’s hard to imagine the designation “job thief” being applied to anybody except perhaps somebody who points a gun at a prospective employer and says, “Hire me, or I’ll kill you!” To my knowledge, this phenomenon is relatively rare among illegal immigrants and in the human population at large, though I would be glad if anybody could point me to evidence suggesting otherwise.

The tendency of many people to use “job thieves” seems to me to lend credence to the view mentioned at the beginning of this blog post: that calling illegal immigrants “illegals” is dehumanizing because it labels the person, rather than the specific action, illegal. This taints all the person’s actions, even those unrelated to border-crossing, with the stain of illegality. I contend that this might be part of the explanation for the attractiveness of the “job thief” terminology for illegal immigrants who find gainful employment.

I look forward to critiques of my position from restrictionists and others who support the “job thieves” terminology, or the use of the noun form of “illegal” to describe illegal immigrants.

4 thoughts on “Are illegal immigrants job thieves?”

  1. Some interesting back and forths on nomenclature from two Hispanic immigration activists over at CNN: and

    I accept the points both make, which is why although “illegal immigrant” and “illegal immigration” aren’t my preferred terms, I don’t have a real problem using them, especially when the context makes sense (e.g. when we are clearly talking about immigration law and the violation or enforcement of it — not in some other policy context where the use of the term seems less relevant). I also think the casual use of “undocumented worker” seems imprecise, although unlike Navarette, I think “undocumented immigrant” seems to be an acceptable synonym for “illegal immigrant”, since one who immigrates outside the usual legal processes will by definition have immigrated without the proper legal documentation. And like Garcia, I think the use of the term “illegal” is quite clearly dehumanising and implicitly steers people towards the conclusion that those who immigrate without following the legal procedures are criminals.

    I think the reason Navarette prefers the term “illegal immigrant” is because he quite clearly thinks that violating US immigration law is wrong and those who do it are “no saints”. But this I think goes too far, as there are many instances where one can easily argue the less wrong thing to do might be to break the law. Considering what the law is without considering the moral alternatives seems to be wrong way to decide what is right and wrong, or to decide who qualifies for sainthood.

    1. Thanks for the links and thoughts. I basically agree — I don’t have a problem with “illegal immigrant” (though I think “unauthorized immigrant” or “unlawful immigrant” are better) but (like you) I do take issue with the noun form “illegal” that conflates the legality of immigration status with the person’s broader identity. It was this that I sought to critique by noting how this leads people to think of illegal immigrants as “job thieves” etc.

      I also think “undocumented” is sloppy terminology, and I’m glad that people protesting “illegal immigrant” have switched to using “unauthorised” rather than “undocumented” since the former is clearer.

      1. For libertarians who believe in natural rights and/or natural law however I don’t think the term “illegal immigrant” would be appropriate. Consider that if one believes that blocking the movement of a person into a country is a violation of that person’s rights, and a violation of rights is what constitutes a crime, it is not the immigrant who is acting illegally under natural law, but the government engaged in the restriction. A consistent natural rights libertarian (who hasn’t been convinced by the collective property rights argument) shouldn’t use the term “illegal” immigrant. Undocumented covers the idea that the immigrant has broken a statute but not a law.

        In the same way most people don’t call the civil rights protesters who broke Jim Crow laws “illegal protesters.” They say instead that they were engaged in acts of civil disobedience. This is done in recognition that an unjust law is a more criminal act than breaking said unjust law.

        1. One edit to make: I do agree “unauthorized” is better than “undocumented” (which from a natural rights perspective is still better than “illegal”).

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