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“Illegal” vs. “Undocumented”: A NWIRP Board Member’s Perspective

By Monika Batra Kashyap

A photo of Monika Batra Kashyap


We are currently stuck in an “immigrant nomenclature debate” which includes, on one end, those who insist on using the term “illegal immigrant” such as some politicians and the media – including the New York Times and the Associated Press. On the other end are those, such as many immigrant rights and advocacy groups, who eschew the term “illegal immigrant” in favor of descriptors such as “undocumented,” “unauthorized,” “non-citizens,” “without status,” or “unlawfully present.”

Proponents of the term “illegal immigrant” claim that it is both precise and concise; they also claim that the term is better than other derogatory terms in circulation. For example, the New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan maintains that while the Times correctly refrains from using the expressions “illegals” and “illegal aliens,” the term “illegal immigrant” should be used because it is clear, brief, accurate and descriptive, and it “gets its job done in two words that are easily understood.”1

Jose Vargas


Proponents of the term “illegal immigrant” also reject the alternative term “undocumented” on the grounds that it obscures the “legal reality” of the situation, and that it is inaccurate. For example, in its memo defending its use ofthe term “illegal immigrant,” the Associated Press maintains that terms like “undocumented” and other terms like it, “minimize the gravity of someone’s illegal presence in the country, making it seem like a matter of minor paperwork.”2 Furthermore the Associate Press claims the term “undocumented” is inaccurate, noting that: “Many illegal immigrants aren’t ‘undocumented’ at all; they may have a birth certificate and passport from their home country, plus a U.S. driver’s license, Social Security card or school ID. What they lack is the fundamental right to be in the United States.”3

On the other end, opponents of the term “illegal immigrant” offer a robust attack of the term. Indeed a powerful public education campaign entitled “Drop the I-Word” was launched in 2010 by the Applied Research Center and which encapsulates many of the prevalent arguments against the term “illegal immigrant.”4 In short, the argument against the term is based on both legal and moral grounds.5

The legal grounds include


The moral grounds include


In addition to the legal and moral grounds set forth above, I would like to offer an additional ground as a basis to reject the term “illegal immigrant” – history. It is critical to view the words we use through a lens grounded in historical context – for doing so can promote a powerful shift in the discourse about immigrants in the U.S.. Indeed, recognizing that this land was colonized by European immigrants; that slavery was in fact forced immigration from Africa that this nation depended upon for its success for three centuries; that many immigrants were made “immigrants” through conquest and/or targeted recruitment by the U.S.; that immigrants play a critical role in the agricultural, industrial and economic growth of this country – reveals the hypocrisy, historical amnesia and racism that undergird the term “illegal immigrant” and also makes apparent the negating attributes of terms like “undocumented.”

Some historical context

All of the land within the United States’ claimed territorial boundaries was occupied by indigenous peoples at the point of initial European colonial contact.6 Indeed, today, it can be – and has been – argued that imposition of the U.S. border on more than 400 indigenous nations whose lands have been forcibly incorporated into the U.S. is not only unlawful, but also results in irreparable harm.7

Furthermore, it can be – and has been – argued that the first “grant of asylum” on this land occurred in 1621 when Chief Massasoit, leader of the Wampanoag tribe, entered into the first treaty between the indigenous people of this land and the colonists (“pilgrims”) who fleeing England, came to this land and then colonized it.8

Almost all of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, and Utah as well as portions of Colorado, Kansas, and Oklahoma, were part of Mexico until the mid-1800’s when the U.S. invaded, occupied and then annexed half of Mexico’s territory.9 Contrast the history of the invasion and occupation of Mexico by the U.S. with the following statements made by sponsors of Arizona Senate Bill 1070:

“… I will not back off till we resolve the problem of this illegal invasion. Invaders, that’s what they are. Invaders on the American sovereignty and it can’t be tolerated.”10

“We are being invaded. Twenty to thirty million people, illegal immigrants coming into our country is an invasion…. We need to take action to stop it…”11

The U.S. has played a proactive role in recruiting cheap labor from outside its borders – first through the forced migration of African immigrants in the slave trade, and then continuing with targeted recruitment from the mid-1800s until recently – from China, Japan, and Mexico. In many cases, the U.S. later excluded and/or deported its initial recruits.12

A poignant example is the Bracero Program followed by Operation Wetback. When America entered World War II in 1942, Congress enacted the Bracero Program which imported close to 5 million Mexicans to work in agricultural and railroad industries.13 However, by 1954, America’s recession led to new efforts to remove Mexicans in what was officially named Operation Wetback where over one million Mexicans were deported or repatriated.14

Therefore, while I firmly advocate for the wholesale jettison of the term “illegal immigrant” based on the legal, moral, and historical grounds above, I am also dissatisfied with terms like “undocumented,” “unauthorized,” “non-citizens,” “without status,” and “unlawfully present.” These terms are framed solely in the negative, and thereby reduce a person to a deficiency. Such negating terms are dehumanizing; they connote finality, defeat, shame, and blame.

That said, because of the immigrant youth-led “undocumented, unafraid and unapologetic” movement which has reclaimed and reframed the term “undocumented,” such a term should indeed be deemed better than terms like “illegal immigrant.” Regardless, let us continue to interrogate the words we use – however imperfect the words may be.



  1. Margaret Sullivan, Readers Won’t Benefit if Times Bans the Term ‘Illegal Immigrant’. October 2, 2012.
  2. Reviewing the Use of ‘Illegal Immigrant’ October 19, 2012.
  3. Id.
  4. See generally, Drop the I-Word,,
  5. See Jose Antonio Vargas, Immigration Debate: The Problem With the Word ‘Illegal’., September 21, 2012.; see also Rinku Sen, Why I Don’t Use the ‘i word’ – In Any Form, Huffington Post, October 14, 2010.; see also, Lawrence Downes, What Part of ‘Illegal’ Don’t You Understand? New York Times, Editorial Observer, October 28, 2007.
  6. See generally, THE STATE OF NATIVE AMERICA: GENOCIDE, COLONIZATION, AND RESISTANCE 2 (1992) (M. Annette Jaimes, ed.).
  7. See Natsu Taylor Saito, Crossing the Line? Examining Current U.S. Immigration & Border Policy: Border Constructions: Immigration Enforcement and Territorial Presumptions, 10 J. GENDER RACE & JUST. 193, 214, n.89 (2007).
  8. Gyasi Ross, A Native Lens: hypocrisy, historical amnesia muddy immigration debate. Colors NW Magazine, July 2006.
  9. See William Arrocha, From Arizona’s S.B. 1070 to Georgia’s H.B. 87 and Alabama’s H.B. 56: Exacerbating the Other and Generating New Discourses and Practices of Segregation, 48 Cal. W. L. Rev. 245, 253 (2012).
  10. Arizona Senator Russell Pearce, sponsor of Arizona Senate Bill 1070 speaking in 2008. Ted Robbins, The Man Behind Arizona’s Toughest Immigration Laws, Nat’l Pub. Radio (Mar. 12, 2008),
  11. Statement made by Rob Haney, the Maricopa County Republican Party Chairman, when S.B. 1070 was introduced to the Public Safety and Human Services Committee of the Arizona State Senate on January 20, 2010. See Public Safety & Human Services, Ariz. State Legislature, (last visited Feb. 14, 2012) (follow Jan. 20, 2010 video hyperlink under “Committee Agenda”).
  12. See generally, Gerald Lopez, Don’t We Like Them Illegal?, 45 UC Davis L. Rev. 1711 (2012); see also, Rhonda V. Magee, Slavery as Immigration?, 44 U.S.F. L. Rev. 273 (2009).
  13. See Benny Agosto, Jr., Lupe Salinas & Eloisa Morales Arteaga, But Your Honor, He’s an Illegal! Can the Undocumented Worker’s Alien Status Be Introduced at Trial?, 74 Tex. Bar J. 286, 287-92 (2011).
  14. Id., See also, Lilian Jiménez, America’s Legacy of Xenophobia: The Curious Origins of Arizona Senate Bill 1070, 48 Cal. W. L. Rev. 279 (2012).