So via Gawker, I’m reading that the AP will continue to use the term “illegal immigrant” in its description of people who live in this country but do not have green cards, visas, or citizenship. The NYT’s public editor came to the same decision, and the choice is one that Gawker’s Cord Jefferson wound up agreeing with.
As a writer looking for accurate and clear terms, I get it. If you’re continuously violating U.S. immigration law by living and working in the country, generally, you are committing illegal acts. You emigrated to the U.S. without following the country’s laws.
That said, the U.S. immigration laws can be amazingly complex, Byzantine, and going through the legal channels can lead to a wait of decades for some to actually get an OK to move to the country. Many of the immigrants who are decried are here through no fault or choice of their own; they came as children and know no one in the countries they’re supposed to go back to. If you want to extrapolate further, I bet the Native Americans wish we’d had to “apply” to come here in the first place. And it’s not unfair to note that in the immigration debate, “illegal immigrant” feels pejorative (advocates of the term would say that’s the point.)
However, there is something rather disturbing about labeling any class of people illegal. As NPR’s Maria Hinojosa quoted Elie Wiesel, labeling people “illegal” can lead to the kind of dehumanizing descriptions that allow people (in this case, Jews) to be eradicated. And let’s be even clearer: this is largely a debate about people with brown skin. European illegal immigrants rarely enter as a topic in this conversation.
(I think we can agree that “illegal alien”, despite being in the U.S. code, is much, much too loaded a term.)
So, let me borrow from Ta-Nehisi Coates and encourage you to talk to me like I’m stupid: what’s the best, accurate, clear, yet non-pejorative adjective/noun combo here? Or can one even exist?
I’ve discussed this before, I think, and I won’t claim my interpretation as “best,” but: I use “illegal immigrant” and “undocumented immigrant” interchangeably. (Never “an illegal” etc., obv.) For a start, for a writer, the more synonyms the better. But also because:
- I was in the US in 2010.
- I am not in the US now.
- I would be in the US now, except my visa expired. Which meant if I’d stayed I would have been undocumented, which would have meant I was illegal.
I have a lot of sympathy for the 12 million people who are in the US without a valid visa and public policy needs to find a solution to rescue them from the limbo in which they now find themselves. (n.b. deporting 12 million people isn’t a solution.) I am exceedingly, intimately aware of how incomprehensible and unnavigable US immigration law is and how it can be next to impossible to immigrate legally — for instance, for a whole bunch of people, there is no queue to join, even one that would take decades to shuffle to the front of.
I can see the sense of many of the arguments in favor of using “undocumented immigrant,” and I particularly think we should avoid dehumanizing these folks. But immigration law exists. I would like to see it liberalized, and in my utopia, most borders would be essentially open. But that’s not the way things are, and all my dealings with the US government as a non-American citizen leads me unavoidably to the conclusion that an “undocumented” immigrant is an illegal one, and should be described as such, even if liberal activists have pragmatic reasons for wishing it were otherwise.