Should we call them “undocumented immigrants”?

We’ve given some thought to nomenclature for illegal immigrants on this site, but there are some salient points which ought to be made from an open borders advocacy standpoint. Personally, I don’t have a problem with most terms normally used for illegal immigrants, other than simply calling them “illegals” or “criminals” (which for I hope obvious reasons seems dehumanising; the term “criminal”, at least under US law, is actually completely erroneous, though it may be technically accurate elsewhere). But on reflection, I do think there are reasons to prefer a term like “undocumented immigrant” and to shy away from “illegal immigrant” — not necessarily from a standpoint of morality or dignity, but more from simply taking the right and fair rhetorical approach. Many immigrant rights activists have a questionable stance on open borders. But in using the term “undocumented immigrant”, they are not overly favouring their side, but rather adopting a term that most law and order-abiding folks, regardless of their stance on illegal immigration, should be fine using.

This is an area where I think open borders and immigrant rights groups should be able to share common ground. Indeed, I would say that given the way immigrant rights groups interpret this term, it’s incredibly pro-open borders of them, because they don’t buy into the common narrative that the problem with “illegal immigration” is entirely with the immigrant, instead of the legal system sharing some blame. From an immigrant rights or open borders standpoint, the issue at stake is that the immigrant did not properly document their arrival with the authorities. Even if you don’t go through the standard legal channels, your breaking the law need not define you any more than a speeding driver’s breaking the law ought to define them; what defines you is that you consequently don’t have the legal documentation or approval you might want or need to go about your business.

At the same time, “undocumented immigrant” does not preclude the possibility of blame attaching to the immigrant himself. Especially in the US, but in many other countries too, immigration is a matter of administrative law, not criminal or civil law. If you don’t pay your taxes, you are not an illegal earner; you are a tax evader. It may seem overly pleasant to refer to an undocumented immigrant as such, when they have no doubt broken the law. But to do otherwise strikes me as equivalent to going out of one’s way to find the most vicious term possible to describe someone driving without  insurance or a valid licence. We describe such drivers as unlicensed or uninsured, not as illegals. Moreover, the typical undocumented immigrant poses less of a threat to life and property than the typical unlicensed or uninsured driver!

The adjective “undocumented” is fairer to both the cases for and against more immigration by keeping the possibility open that the legal system shares some fault for what has happened. This language declares that what’s wrong is not that someone chose to immigrate — it’s that someone chose to immigrate, but couldn’t or didn’t obtain the appropriate papers to do so. “Illegal driver” would after all imply that driving by itself can be an illegal act — but it is not the act of driving that is illegal any more than the act of immigrating is. It is the act of doing so without the proper papers that is the problem — and this can be the fault of the person who breaks the law, or the fault of the law for making it impractical to comply. “Undocumented immigrant” is significantly more agnostic about the legal process for immigration than the term “illegal immigrant” — and rightly so, I dare say.

After all, the legal processes for immigration in most countries mean that most people around the world, no matter how much they may be acting in good faith, have near zero legal chance of immigrating via lawful channels to the country of their choice. In many cases, they have almost just as little chance of even visiting or studying in the countries they would like to. The workings of the legal processes for immigration in many countries are opaque, arbitrary, and absurd; it’s not hard to find examples of contradictory instructions from immigration bureaucracies, or “obvious” good-faith immigrants (like a white girl from the UK who grew up in the US) facing deportation proceedings. One recent change in US immigration law allows certain people who are already entitled to a US visa to apply for it without leaving the country — prior to this change, roughly half of those who left and applied for it got it quickly, while the other half faced waits measured in years.

For this reason, to focus on the term “illegal” when discussing such immigrants is to I think prevent the attachment of any blame or fault to the legal system, even though a very reasonable case may exist for such blame. Even a good deal of people who complain about illegal immigration focus on the fact that undocumented immigrants immigrated unlawfully — it’s not the act of immigration by itself that they take issue with. But the term “illegal immigrant” favours the presumption that this is mostly or entirely that immigrant’s fault for not “waiting their turn” or what have you. It implicitly assumes there is no chance the legal system could share some blame, for failing to offer such immigrants practicable legal avenues to cross the border. The term “undocumented immigrant” is more agnostic about who might get the blame.

Because it is agnostic, “undocumented immigrant” is a more favourable rhetorical term for open borders advocates. After all, “illegal immigrant” favours a presumption that there is (and perhaps ought to be) no legal right for such immigrant to be here, and that any authorisation such immigrant receives is a gift at the behest of the natives or authorities. “Undocumented immigrant” does not militate against any such presumption that a right to migrate might exist. “Undocumented immigrant” reminds us that the focus ought to be on the immigrant’s entry not being appropriately documented by the authorities as required by law — and that how we apportion blame for this between the immigrant and the legal system is a subjective question.

I don’t object to the term “illegal immigrant” on grounds of morality or dignity, but I do think it has a tendency to lower the societal status of undocumented immigrants relative to how society actually views them. Thomas Sowell approves of the view that “undocumented immigrant” is about as appropriate a term as “unlicensed pharmacist” would be for a drug dealer. This neat analogy is not nearly so neat as it first appears — something I plan to briefly discuss in a future post. But for now, open borders advocates and those looking for a less-charged term to discuss illegal immigration might remember that undocumented immigrant is no less an appropriate — and actually, I would contend, a far more appropriate — term than illegal immigrant.

John Lee is an administrator of the Open Borders website. Liberal immigration laws are a personal passion for him. See all blog posts by John.


12 thoughts on “Should we call them “undocumented immigrants”?”

  1. I largely agree with your views on this. I’m curious, though, about your opinion on the relative merits of using “undocumented” versus “unauthorised” (or “unauthorized” if you’re assimilated into US spelling :)).

    Where I think some advocacy groups go wrong, however, is in going beyond their personal choice to use the terms into devoting too many resources into trying to get the world at large to adopt the changed nomenclature. I think that trying to effect a change in nomenclature without changing people’s moral presumptions is largely pointless, and even if they are able to pressure some journalists to drop the use of the term “illegal” it’s likely that “undocumented” will soon acquire the connotations of a slur (if it hasn’t already). Thus, I think it is more fruitful to concentrate on arguing about the underlying ideas rather than focus too much on the choice of words that others use.

    1. I agree it’s not worth devoting a lot of effort to try to change people’s preferred nomenclature if one considers the non-preferred term itself not overly/inherently demeaning. I can understand why some advocacy groups would find the “illegal immigrant” term troubling, though again, it’s questionable that attacking this language itself is an ideal way to spend scarce resources.

      Unauthorised immigrant strikes me as just as fair and accurate as undocumented. I would likely use the two interchangeably.

  2. …the term “criminal”, at least under US law, is actually completely erroneous….

    Unbelievable. Illegal immigration is a crime punishable by imprisonment under 8 USC 1325.


      The opinion of the US Supreme Court: “As a general rule, it is not a crime for a removable alien to remain present in the United States. … Congress decided it would be inap­propriate to impose criminal penalties on aliens who seek or engage in unauthorized employment.” Immigrants are not committing a criminal offense by remaining in the US or even seeking work. It is about as accurate to call undocumented immigrants criminals as it would be to call someone with a history of criminal speeding (an offense in quite a few US states) or reckless driving a criminal.

      You are of course correct that illegal entry itself is punishable with criminal penalties. But to label people who have committed these crimes “criminal” or “illegal” is about as sensible as it is to call criminal someone who routinely torrents movies or drives more than 20 miles per hour over the legal speed limit.

  3. The problem with the term “undocumented immigrant” is that it’s a lie. They aren’t undocumented; they don’t lack documents that would prove their right to be here. They simply lack that right.

    1. And an unlicensed driver isn’t unlicensed; they don’t lack documents that would prove their right to drive a vehicle on the public motorway, right?

      1. Well, that certainly made no sense. An unlicensed driver is not undocumented; he is unlicensed or, if you prefer, illegal. A licensed driver who is not carrying his license could be described as “undocumented”.

  4. Hi John. I said this exact thing in an email exchange with a friend a few weeks ago, and I used the analogy of an “unlicensed physician,” which is never referred to as an “illegal physician.”

    Although it seems silly to argue about whether illegal immigration is technically criminal or not, it makes a big difference to the general public. How many times have we heard, “I’m favor of immigration, just not illegal immigration.” The general public seems to think that undocumented immigrants are doing something beyond the pale and deserved to be stigmatized in a way that other people who violate administrative rules do not.

    @ben tillman

    “They aren’t undocumented; they don’t lack documents that would prove their right to be here. They simply lack that right.”

    If they’ve found an employer or a landlord who consents to their presence, why wouldn’t they have that right? Do they have to get your permission first?

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