Words Matter: No Human Being is Illegal

Most conversations about immigration include someone referring to others as “illegal.” The US government officially refers to certain people as “illegal aliens.”[1] Many migrants are accused of being in or entering the US “illegally.” Regardless of whether or not a person has committed a crime in entering the US without authorization, that person is not illegal. A person cannot be illegal. While certain actions may be criminal, or illegal, people cannot be illegal. Although, in the US, it is a federal crime to enter the country without inspection, it is not a crime to be present within the country without authorization.[2] Thus, a person living in the US without status, or without a valid visa, is not committing a crime.

Referring to other people as illegal is grammatically incorrect. Otto Santa Ana, a linguist and professor in UCLA’s Department of Chicana/o Studies explains “’[w]e don’t call pedestrians who cross in the middle of the street illegal pedestrians’… ‘A kid who skips school to go to Disneyland is not an illegal student. And yet that’s a sort of parallel.’”[3] There are many linguists who argue against using the phrase “illegal immigrant” because it is neither “‘accurate nor neutral’” and other people who break laws are not referred to as “illegal.”[4] Such language is dehumanizing and used to make it easier to justify harmful and dangerous policies against a group of people. The phrase “illegal immigrant” was not popularly used until World War II when it was used to describe Jewish refugees who fled to Palestine without authorization.[5] Elie Wiesel, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor, once said, “know that no human being is illegal. That is a contradiction in terms. Human beings can be beautiful or more beautiful, they can be fat or skinny, they can be right or wrong, but illegal? How can a human being be illegal?”[6]

Although a migrant may have committed a crime in entering the US without inspection or authorization, “illegal alien” is not the proper way to describe them because “illegal alien” was not a legal term until it was used by the Court in Arizona v. United States.[7] In the Immigration and Nationality Act, an “alien” is someone who is neither a citizen nor a national of the United States.[8] The phrase “illegal alien” is not terminology used in the Act. In 2018, only months ago, the Justice Department instructed US attorney offices to refer to undocumented immigrants as “illegal aliens.”[9] The phrase has been popularized in the US to describe both documented and undocumented immigrants due to a misconception that undocumented immigrants, by virtue of existing, violate criminal law. Again, being present in the United States without a valid visa is not a violation of criminal law. Immigration attorney Shahid Haque-Hausrath writes:

the term [illegal alien] is imprecise and is used to encompass individuals who are in the United States under vastly different circumstances. Some individuals are brought here against their will, such as victims of human trafficking. Others come here on valid visas but subsequently fall out of status. For instance, many victims of domestic violence have legal status that depends on the continued sponsorship of their abuser. Some individuals are here under ‘temporary protected status’ because of strife in their home country, but fall out of status when our government removes their protected status. To blanket all immigrants who are out of status as being ‘illegals’ is overly simplistic.[10]

Furthermore, Haque-Hausrath explains, the phrase “illegal alien” is used to “dehumanize immigrants and divorce [us] from thinking of them as human beings. For some reason, this may serve as a defense mechanism to avoid feeling sympathy for undocumented immigrants, many of whom are separated from their children or loved ones when they are deported.”[11] Additionally, a person does not need to demand sympathy in order to be recognized as a human being and to be allowed to exist.

The Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Immigrants explains, as a part of its #WordsMatter initiative, that “language shapes people’s perceptions. Discriminatory language in reference to undocumented migrants leads to perceptions and actions which negatively impact the daily realities of undocumented migrants, [and] leads to perceptions and actions which negatively impact the daily realities of undocumented migrants.”[12] Define American’s #WordsMatter campaign encourages others, especially media outlets and politicians, to use more appropriate and correct terminology in referring to people living in the US without a path to permanent residency or citizenship. This terminology includes: “newest Americans, newcomers, undocumented citizens, unauthorized immigrants, families who have moved from one place to another, and people who weren’t born in the United States.”[13]

It is factually incorrect to refer to people as illegal. It is grammatically incorrect to refer to people as illegal. It is dehumanizing to refer to people as illegal. People may be undocumented, people may have entered the US without inspection, people may be living in the US without authorization, but none of those people are illegal. Although it is not technically incorrect to refer to the way someone entered the country as illegal, if they did so without inspection, using the word “illegal” in reference to immigration only serves to perpetuate the idea that migrants are criminals. In this context, the actions which violate criminal law may be referred to as “unlawful.” This term remains factually correct but does not impose criminality on migrants. Additionally, just because something is unlawful does not mean it is immoral; just because something is unlawful does not mean it is just to dehumanize people.

This conversation is greater than referring to people as illegal aliens or referring to the way someone enters the US as legal or illegal. This conversation includes all of the language used to refer to migrants and immigration. There is no “right way” to come to the US; there is no “line” to get in the back of; there is no “good immigrant” and there is no “bad immigrant.” The laws in the US dictating immigration force some people to wait for decades before they can be reunited with their families. These laws punish asylum seekers who flee violence and persecution. These laws pit some immigrants against others. The good immigrant/bad immigrant dichotomy does nothing other than continue to impose criminality on undocumented Americans and require immigrants to work harder than US born citizens to be worthy of their place in the country, through things such as academic accomplishments. Immigration attorneys, activists, and politicians in particular must be aware of the importance of using the appropriate language so as to not continue to dehumanize fellow Americans or continue to embolden racists and their hateful rhetoric.

  1. Arizona v. United States, 567 U.S. 387, 132 S.Ct. 2492 (2012).
  2. 8 U.S.C §1325.
  3. Lauren Gambino, “‘No human being is illegal’: linguists argue against mislabeling of immigrants,” in The Guardian, available at https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/dec/06/illegal-immigrant-label-offensive-wrong-activists-say (Dec. 2015).
  4. Id.
  5. Id.
  6. Long Island Wins, “No human being is illegal and Elie Wiesel,” Long Island Wins (July 2016).
  7. See Arizona v. United States, supra note 1, at 2495.
  8. 8 U.S.C §1101(a)(3).
  9. Tal Kopan, “Justice Department: Use ‘illegal aliens,’ not ‘undocumented,’” in CNN Politics, available at https://www.cnn.com/2018/07/24/politics/justice-department-illegal-aliens-undocumented/index.html (July 2018).
  10. Shahid Haque-Hausrath, untitled, available at http://www.nohumanbeingisillegal.com/Home.html (2008).
  11. Id.
  12. The Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Immigrants, “Words Matter,” available at https://picum.org/words-matter/.
  13. Define American, “Words Matter,” available at https://defineamerican.com/campaigns/wordsmatter/.


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