Is it illegal immigrant or undocumented immigrant?

(Correction made at 3:30 p.m., Jan. 3 to reflect that Society of Professional Journalists’ Diversity Committee does not favor AP switch)  Some are roiled by the Associated Press calling illegal immigrants … illegal immigrants. Latina Lista, for example, is upset that a students body president who is an illegal was called an “illegal immigrant.” read There’s an interesting news debate on that here

“Illegal immigrant” is not an offensive term. If I were living illegally in a foreign country, I would be an “illegal immigrant.” And so are people who live in the U.S. illegally. Calling someone “undocumented immigrant” satisfies a desire for political correctness.

But it’s a political correctness that is unfortunately catching. I notice more newspapers causing their headline writers pain by insisting on “undocumented immigrant.” (Even the Standard-Examiner incorrectly used it recently) Both the Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News make it part of their style to use the clumsy, PC term. I suspect that the DesNews uses the term not so much for PC but because Mormon Church leaders, conscious of the church’s relationship with the Hispanic world, don’t want the headache of protests from ideologues.

But either reason is silly. Illegal immigrant is what a person living in a nation illegally is. I personally would like to see Congress come up with a solution where the vast majority of illegal immigrants can become U.S. citizens. And then we call them residents or citizens, and not “documented immigrants.”

To read an American Journalism Review article on the issue, click here

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16 Responses to Is it illegal immigrant or undocumented immigrant?

  1. TV says:

    “But either reason is silly. Illegal immigrant is what a person living in a nation illegally is.” True, Doug.

    But, an immigrant to this country who does not yet have documents also is an “undocumented immigrant.” So, you can use the term “political correctness” if you choose when you try to detemine why one would use one term over the other. BUT, in purely sematic terms, “undocumented immigrant” is as precise as “illegal immigrant.”

    I could easily argue — in fact, I will, right here — that the term “illegal immigrant” is actually the “politically correct” term these days. It is, after all, the term that will get one elected politically these days!

  2. Bob Becker says:

    I’m with TV on this one. “Undocumented immigrant” is as accurate a term as illegal immigrant. I don’t see much wrong from a journalist’s POV using either one, and I don’t see any very good argument for mandating using one of them exclusively. If they’re not here with the necessary documents, they’re undocumented immigrants. If they’re not here legally, they’re here illegally. And TV is right that insisting on “illegal aliens” is PC in its way as insisting on undocumented immigrants. Just as insisting on Merry Christmas is as PC for those who insist on it as Happy Holidays is for those who insist on it. [You say tomato, I say tamahto.]

    Not to mention that arguments about terminology like the one Doug raises generally serve only to divert discussion from the main issue. Even if settled by general consent, they solve nothing substantive. I recall all the heartburning that took place over whether to use “black” or “African-American” with some taking huge offense if a journalist happened to use the term the offended didn’t prefer. Ditto Hispanic or Latino. Ditto Indian or Native American or First Nations.

    Surprising to see Doug so PC on this.

  3. Hello Doug. I’m glad to tell you that the reports you’ve been hearing are false. I’m messaging you the following information on behalf of Executive Director Joe Skeel at HQ:

    “The views expressed by Leo Laurence in Quill magazine, SPJ’s Diversity Committee blog “Who’s News,” and on subsequent television programs are his personal opinion and do not reflect the views of SPJ nor its Diversity Committee. Contrary to what has been reported, SPJ has not engaged in any initiative to end the use of the term “illegal immigrant.”

    Additionally here are two Fox News coverage bit URL links clarifying the misconception:

    Fox & Friends

    If you have any further conerns, feel free to contact me at HQ


  4. Doug Gibson says:

    Andrew, I am glad to hear that. The blog has been corrected. … TV and Bob, I agree with you that illegal alien, which UPI uses, is a loaded term. I try not to use it. But so is undocumented immigrant. I agree with the AP’s David Minthorn, who said in an article I linked to: “Together the terms describe a person who resides in a country unlawfully by residency or citizenship requirements. Alternatives like undocumented worker, illegal alien or illegals lack precision or may have negative connotations. Illegal immigrant, on the other hand, is accurate and neutral for news stories.”

  5. Bob Becker says:


    I mistyped and didn’t proof read well. I intended the sentence you commented that said “illegal aliens” to read this way:

    And TV is right that insisting on “illegal immigrants” is as PC in its way as insisting on undocumented immigrants.

    My bad. Write in haste, repent at leisure.

    [One of the downsides of blogs-as-newspaper-features is the stuff that goes up on them, at least from readers, doesn't benefit from the ministrations of a stony-hearted copy-editor asking sarcasm-laden questions like "Did you really mean to say what you in fact said?" My favorite in that way came from a professor who came across the phrase on a paper about the cold war sparking "a new polarism." He circled the term and asked in the margin "What's that? Eskimo nationalism?" ]

  6. Al says:

    According to Megyn Kelly at one of the links Doug posted, the debate over “illegal immigrant” and “undocumented immigrant” is equivalent to “rapist” versus “non-consensual sex partner.”

    And they say Fox news can’t do comedy.

    • Bob Becker says:


      Thank you, Al. Living as I try to do in what the Christian right dismisses as “the reality-based world,” I rarely watch Fox and would not have caught this.

      Owe ya one.

  7. Mark Shenefelt says:

    I agree with the observation that a semantics debate does little more than deflect attention from the core issues. We collectively seem to be experts at splitting hairs on imagery and never solving anything substantive.

    I’m fine with “illegal” or “undocumented” in this case. There’s no perfect term to satisfy anyone, and these both are accurately descriptive.

  8. Bettybb says:

    The reason the pro illegal immigration advocates want to use the term \undocumented immigrant\ is that they want to hide the fact that what people are doing is breaking the law. I am sure drug dealers would much prefer to be called unlicensed pharmacists, and bank robbers unauthorized withdrawers!

    What is interesting is the same journalists who use \undocumented immigrant\ for Mexicans here illegally, when speaking of illegal immigrants in Mexico use the term \migrants\.

    Maybe we should call them illegal migrants.

  9. laytonian says:

    How about we just drop the adjective, and call them IMMIGRANTS?

    …and all of this talk about “rounding them up”? Let’s round ‘em up, give them SSNs, require them to pay taxes, be law-abiding citizens, and learn English.

    Oh, wait. I sound like Barack Obama, don’t I?

  10. Stephen Cook says:

    Categorizing something as complex as a human being into the easily painted Legal v. Undocumented, is intellectually vapid.

    When you share as many traits as those who are in another broadly painted category, you know it is a false categorization drawn for someone with a loaded agenda.

    They are humans, most no more law breaking than your average US citizen.

    • Agree… but I think the words do matter. The expression has been shortened so that you would think the people themselves are illegal. Let’s don’t pretend that it isn’t common to just say “illegals” to describe this group.

      If you drive without a license or insurance or under the influence, you are also breaking the law, technically driving illegally but we don’t generalize to the individuals and say “these people ARE illegal.” Probably because we wouldn’t like the insinuation that our personhood is somehow not within the law.

  11. magyart says:

    Visit the NumbersUSA and the ALIPAC websites and help fight illegal immigration.

    In 2012, vote against every politician that supports illegal aliens.

  12. Delaware Bob says:

    The correct term is “ILLEGAL ALIEN”. Definition: One who is in this Country “ILLEGALLY”.

  13. TV says:

    The context of “word use” always matters — except to absolutists, who rarely live in the world in which decision are made. Do I really have to point this out?

    In this case, (1) these people are definitely illegal, so there is a legitimate reason to call them illegal; however, (2) we definitely in recent history “invite” them here to work for us, invite them here to stay with us, live with us, pray with us, learn at schools with us, shop with us, change sheets in our hotels with us, scrape and wash our restaurant plates for us, re-roof our houses, cut our grass … all the while glancing aside at the fact that their, yes, illegal staus makes them illegal and — importantly — recognizing that most of them will (or HAVE) become real American citizens. So this is the problem here: the illegals who do not have doucmentation really are just people waiting for documentation.

    Ya have to swallow a large dose of context and give it its due — sorrry, at the expense of literalism.

  14. Preston says:

    Nicely and succinctly put, Doug.

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