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.