Banning the Term ‘Illegal Immigrant’ Won’t Change the Stigma

If you update the language, the negative connotations will simply migrate to the new term

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Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

Immigrant students hold signs at a demonstration calling for an end to deportations in Los Angeles on June 15, 2012.

Last week the Associated Press announced that it would ban the term illegal immigrant from its stylebook. They are among many organizations and immigration advocates of late who argue that the term is uncivil, or even defamatory.

(MORE: Immigration Debate: The Problem with the Word “Illegal”)

Whether there is a point in that or not – and quite a few, including immigrants, think there isn’t – the main problem here is a matter of how language works. The idea is that banning “illegal immigrant” will change how people think, that using the term undocumented immigrant will improve the public opinion of the people in question. But it won’t.

The problem is that language dances much more lightly on thought than we often suppose, and in a battle between thought and language, thought has a way of winning out. Words’ meanings, even when crafted to bend away from opinion, drift back to where we didn’t want them to be, like a fly keeps landing on you after you swat it away. This has happened to previous attempts to expunge a term of its negative meaning.

Consider affirmative action, now so conventional we rarely stop to parse what the actual words comprising it mean. “Affirming” what? What kind of “action”? The term was a magnificently artful and gracious construction of the 1960s, giving a constructive, positive air to an always controversial policy.

Note, however, that political opponents soon came to associate the term with the same negative feelings they had about the policy it referred to, such that today it is uttered with scorn by many. Racial preferences was the chosen replacement – but now it is now as loaded as affirmative action was.

(MORE: How Affirmative Action Backfires At Universities)

Words cannot escape reality. A similar thing happened with welfare, a constructive euphemism compared to once common terms of disparagement such as the dole. Once again, though, surly associations long ago settled back down on the term. By now we have to think a bit to process that the original meaning of welfare, in the political context, was well-being. Notably, another term of art for the same policy, home relief, rapidly took on the same kinds of associations.

If an issue commonly attracts dismissive attitudes, those attitudes simply migrate to any new term that is created. This has happened to urgently intended terms such as women’s liberation, (now feminism) and crippled, later handicapped, only to be replaced by disabled. 

Changing the terms can perhaps get a conversation started, rather like God getting the globe spinning under deist philosophy. But fast forward about 10 years and undocumented immigrant will have taken on the same dismissive air that illegal immigrant has now. Expect arguments, then, that “undocumented” is itself a slur – especially since some are already making them now.  If you change only the language, real life catches up. What really creates change is argumentation. If we really want to improve the lot of this group, we’d do better to attend to the fate of the President’s immigration bill about to be presented to Congress.

It’s harder to change reality than to play with words. But then, who thought real life wasn’t hard?

MORETIME’s Cover Story: Not Legal, Not Leaving


Here we go with more can spin it any way you want, but they're here illegally, so how do you remove the "stigma" from illegal immigrant.  Tired of all the fear of saying something will offend someone.  It is what it is.  If you don't like being called illegal, then get LEGAL!


In other words... As long as an ideological belief has the unfair and unbalanced mainstream media support by those most aligned in common ideological interest... rational judgement has again and again throughout history unfortunately not proven to win out despite its degree of truth.


Banning any term that through time, debate and analysis proved righteous enough to elicit a label (illegal immigrant) will always eventually fall to the uneducated, irrational title wave of "information" predicated by elitist controlled popular opinion if they indeed have that power.


Banning any term that through time, debate and analysis proved righteous enough to elicit a label (illegal immigrant) will still eventually fall to the uneducated, irrational conclusion predicated by elitist controlled popular opinion if they indeed have that power.


Illegal immigrant is too nice a word, so go ahead and ban it.

Just call them what they are criminals, law breakers.

CharlesEdwardBrown 1 Like

What part of Illegal do people not understand? These criminals should be deported and not rewarded.

cisco 1 Like

@CharlesEdwardBrown Your statement spills hate, resentment, bitterness. People who want to come to this country to work hard and support their love ones are not criminals. The only difference between you and them is the word illegal.

seattleman1969 2 Like

@ciscoco Your statement oozes naivety, arrogance, defensiveness, and hints strongly at a lack of education.

"People who want to come to this country to work hard and support their love ones are not criminals."

Wrong, people who come here without authorization, against the laws of our country ARE criminals. The very act of crossing the border without authorization is a criminal act.

There is far more difference between us and them. want a list? Let me oblige you.

1. I respect the laws and follow them. Their first act, associated with entering the country, is to break the law.

2. I pay taxes. As an illegal alien the vast majority of the time they work under the table and do not pay taxes and further remit a large part of their income to relatives out of country so they are contributing less to the economy here.

3. I pay for my family and my own healthcare, food, medicines, housing, etc. The vast majority of them get some sort of Government assistance, which ALSO comes out of my pockets. I am not a leech on our society, they are.

I could go on, but I have a very strong feeling that my words are wasted on you as you simply cannot understand reason or sanity.


Wow, so you are on the minority destruction tour, first they use you to destroy immigrants who migrated here and use you to destroy not only our community but your own self, when you allow yourself to be used to hurt others, you do not escape hurting yourself.

washnwerwolf 4 Like

How about using Illegal Alien. It is factual and correct in every aspect. Or if that is to harsh, Workforce Invader. Job Stealer. Benefit Sponge. I know, the perfect phrase is Disease Vector.

“Today, legal immigrants must demonstrate that they are free of communicable diseases and drug addiction to qualify for lawful permanent residency green cards,” writes Cosman, a medical lawyer, who formerly taught medical students at the City University of New York. “Illegal aliens simply cross our borders medically unexamined, hiding in their bodies any number of communicable diseases.”

Many illegals entering this country have tuberculosis, according to the report.


A 2005 Mother Jones Magazine interview with Dr. Lee Reichman of The New Jersey TB Clinic stated: "In the 1990's, cases among foreign born Americans rose from 29 percent to 41.6 percent. Antibiotic resistant strains from Mexico have migrated to Texas. Since three years ago, 16,000 new cases of TB were discovered in the United States. Half were foreign born. Strains of TB once only found in Mexico have migrated to the border states of Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and California. It will move north as illegal aliens work in restaurants as cooks, dishwashers, and food handlers. We sit on the edge of a potential catastrophe."

So yeah. There is a reason that borders are supposed to be protected. I was doing a clinical rotation down in the South West of USA when they were screening EVERYONE in the hospital for TB. We had virtually eradicated TB in the US. Now it is making a comeback.

CharlesScamardo 4 Like

Illegal Immigrant should be a stigma. YOU ARE HERE against the law of the country you are trying to enter. Political Correctness madness.

Peace_2_All 5 Like

You can try and support changing the language and terms in a "semantic drift" kind of way all you want, however it still won't change the reality of the situation.


CharleyX 4 Like

Lol!  it's time all those wet backs were sent back to whatever crap-hole country they crawled out of.

valentine.godoflove 1 Like

illegal immigrant means.......jerkoff....that you croseed the border into the United States and are here illegally......

no matter how you change the wording.....a monkey is still a monkey.....a duck is still a duck.....a cow is still a cow

but there are some among us who want to change the language by lying.....for 50 years in a row......theyn the new generation will not know the difference......for they are low informed and stupid anyway.....


tbbaot 6 Like

Imposing political correctness in an attempt to shut down debate will never change the facts. Illegal immigration is illegal in every nation on the planet. It's the same as breaking into your neighbors home and helping yourself to his food. 

wigglwagon 4 Like

No matter what they call themselves, they are criminals.

DavidRichard 7 Like

Isn't it about time we started ignoring such indoctrinating BS , find a way to stop supporting the politicians that are bankrupting and encouraging stupid non-citizens to occupy our country?


@DavidRichard  The time to stop supporting the politicians that are bankrupting and encouraging stupid non-citizens to occupy our country went when Tom Tancredo, R-CO was ignored. Now, water is well above the head drowning one and all Americans. Now all that is left is to pay Amigo-tax (unemployment, welfare, medical, housing), while being looted, raped and murdered by the same amigos. Oh, brace your kids to be shunned as Gringos when they apply for 'Bi-lingual' (read Spanish only) jobs, if at all selected for an interview. Any resistance will be shunned down as RACIST. Comprende?

babycheeks 10 Like

This country has lost it's mind. We are being manipulated to use twisted words that deny reality. How can we ever solve our   problem if we cannot talk about it in plain truthful language. If someone enters the country illegally, they are illegally here and that person is an illegal immigrant. Playing word games to tone down the offense of their criminal act is insulting the intelligence of us all and just adds to the suspicion that the proponents of "reform" cannot be trusted to act in good faith.


@babycheeks What you didn't realize is that Obama won on Hispanic votes. How did he get Hispanic votes? Obama promised citizenship to illegals in his campaign. heck, he has given licences to illegals in Chicago even when he was a senator. Did you not see his record or even his 'God D**N America' speeches?
That's right 'God D**N America'!

babycheeks 2 Like

@Bhishma @babycheeks I am well aware of Obama's votes and speeches, and the fact that the Republicans are now jumping in too, including Rand Paul, all pandering for the Hispanic vote. They are falling over each other to get to them.

BajaRat 5 Like

The correct legal term for these lawbreaking miscreants is "illegal aliens" despite what the PC BS Associated Press says. They have the same socialist agenda as tin pot dictator Comrade ObaMao, and should no longer be considered a legitimate news source since they are obviously using "spin" rather than reporting actual news.

apchronicles 4 Like

So if someone is caught driving without a license they should called illegal driver? Language does have power and it evokes thoughts, feelings, concepts and ideas. If language was did not matter then we would not care how our politicians phrase their platforms, how our leaders address the nation or how we are spoke to and about. 

He who controls the language controls the conversation!

Uglyamerican 6 Like

@apchronicles If someone is caught without a licence driving, they are called an illegal driver. If they break the speed laws, they are a speeder. If they kill someone, they are a murderer. Or they can be a rapist, drug dealer, burglar, mugger, child-molester, robber, bandit, fraud, pedophile, shyster, con-man or scam-artist. Even little crimes have names to go with them like "jay-walker".

And the answer for any citizen who doesn't want to be called one of those names (along with possibly "Sweetcakes" in prison) is to not break the law. That also happens to be the same advice foreigners should follow.

They can call people who deliberately and intentionally break our immigration laws "foreign dignitaries", but that won't change what they really are (illegal aliens)or what American's generally think of them. It will, however, give a bad name to foreign dignitaries as it has done to legitimate immigrants.

"He who controls the language controls the conversation" has a caveat; If they turn the terms into complete fabrications in order to gain unfair advantage, the conversation becomes worthless. And that is what has really been done.


@Uglyamerican @apchronicles when someone is caught without a license they are not called illegal driver, as a matter of fact they might be given a warning and let go. We don't refer to them as illegal anything...

It is easy to say not to break the law when you are on the other side of the fence with all the amenities, resources and production services not to mention the power to control them. But this argument is neither here nor there cause the same could have been said many, many,, many years ago when Natives were here.

As to what Americans think of them, let's not pretend that ALL Americans think alike, generalizations don't add up - besides ask someone form Central AMERICA or South AMERICA and they will tell you different.

You might be right about the caveat on the control of language but that is the point right! that most that do that do it for an unfair advantage and get away with it, or maybe you have not heard of injustice, persecution or oppression. These words are alive and well in the present day, here in America and abroad.

Uglyamerican 3 Like

@apchronicles @Uglyamerican Semantics really mean a lot to you people, don't they? When people refer to themselves, they don't do it by continent unless they are trying to push an issue, as you are doing. They will say what country they are from such as "I am Chilean". In the USA and across the globe, when someone says "American" they think of a citizen of THIS country, not Mexico or Columbia.

As for justice, no other nation in the world, including those who demand we change our laws, allows people of other nations to be there without permission or even thinks of offering them amnesty for violating their sovereignty Justice would be for the people who violated our laws to return to their native countries and follow our laws to come here. But the people of Latin America don't really want justice or they wouldn't be trying to lie about who and what they are. They admire lawbreaking and fighting the authorities, which are always oppressing them, no matter where they are.

Here in the US, we respect and celebrate authority and obey laws. Our songs about lawbreakers almost never end well for them as they do in Latin music. Our songs about lawmen almost always do. The only illegal aliens are "persecuted" and "oppressed" is the same reason US citizens have the same troubles; They broke the law. We even have places for citizens and foreigners alike who break our laws; prisons. And illegal aliens are lucky we don't adopt the policy of Mexico and let them spend two years in one before they get deported.

bryanfred1 2 Like

The biggest issue blocking economic progress in Mexico (and many other Latin American countries) is equal enforcement of contract laws and property rights, or specifically lack thereof.  Try to enforce a lien in Mexico and see how far you get (I'll save you the trouble - nowhere. A bank trying to seize collateral on a defaulted loan is seen as the aggressor).  Mexico and most points south have vast natural resources.  The U.S. side of the fence is hardly advantaged in that sense.  It is not the arbitrary placement of a line on a map that separates those who have opportunity from those who do not, as if crossing a certain latitude somehow affects the laws of economics.

seattleman1969 3 Like

@apchronicless Don't know where you are from but I've never seen anyone driving without a license let go. they are usually arrested at a minimum and their car towed to impound to face mounting fines and fees and potentially jail time.

eafarron 5 Like

Let's not offend the drug dealers out there anymore either. Perhaps UNLICENCED PHARMACIST would represent the Associated Press in its twisted way of thinking a wrong being correct. 

RickHunter 6 Like

"But fast forward about 10 years and undocumented immigrant will have taken on the same dismissive air that illegal immigrant has now."

Duh... you don't have to wait 10 years... we're already there!  Undocumented Immigrant = ILLEGAL!  Anyone with a half a functioning brain cell already knows this.

rohit57 8 Like

How would people feel about changing the term rapist to "undocumented sexual partner"?

I won't deny that there is a huge MORAL difference between the one and the other.  But they ARE both breaking the law and it is disturbing to have people invent terms which imply, in effect, that breaking the law is OK.  It really isn't/

seattleman1969 8 Like

When will you people get it, the term illegal immigrant is appropriate and correct. These people are immigrating, IE: moving to a new place, crossing our border, illegally, IE: without permission or clearance against or contrary to the laws of our nation. trying to make it all touchy feely by changing the nomenclature doesn't change the act or the facts. What they are doing is illegal, and an affront to all of those immigrants who have waited patiently and gone through the process of properly being granted citizenship which includes indoctrination into our nation's legal system and English language classes.