Is ‘Illegal Immigrant’ a Racial Slur?
Some activist groups say it is.


“A person cannot be illegal,” says Novoa. The language confuses the “actions and the people who are committing those actions.” But in fact, for Novoa, there is no place at all for illegal: She refuses to use the word in any context. And she is stumped, during our phone conversation, when I ask how it differs from calling someone a criminal or a felon.

Novoa says that it is “easy to confuse this term for legal language.” U.S. law does not define illegal alien, nor does it use the term illegal immigrant. But it does define alien: “any person not a citizen or national of the United States” (8 USC § 1101). This has been standard government usage for centuries, most famously in the 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services continues to use the term in official publications. As for illegal, the term indicates a violation of the law; there is therefore no reason for the law itself to define it.

In part, Haque-Hausrath rests his argument against illegal alien on the fact that overstaying a visa, as many immigrants have done, “is a civil offense, not a criminal offense” — which is true: It is a federal criminal misdemeanor to enter the U.S. other than through an established point of entry, while it is a civil infraction to overstay a visa. But to call only the former “illegal” is misleading. Many things are illegal but not criminal — exceeding the speed limit, for example. Overstaying one’s visa falls into this category.

Another argument against illegal immigrant is that it presumes the guilt of those it denotes. NumbersUSA estimates that, of the approximately 10.8 million “unauthorized immigrants” currently residing in the U.S., about 60 percent crossed the border illegally and about 40 percent overstayed their visas. But to call all 10.8 million of those immigrants illegal, according to DTIW’s website, “finds many people guilty before they are tried.” Haque-Hausrath concurs:

When white collar criminals are arrested, we are careful to label them as “accused” and state that the government’s accusations are merely “alleged.” But when newspapers refer to immigration raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the headlines often repeat ICE’s figures on the number of “illegal aliens” who were arrested. These individuals are effectively convicted in the media before trial ever begins.

That is reasonable ground for precision in terminology, but it is no argument against using the term for people who in fact are here illegally. Discussing the problems — economic, social, cultural, moral — of a massive population residing in this country in violation of American law requires a general term, and illegal immigrants is a perfectly reasonable label for that group.

When journalists say that there are 10.8 million “illegal immigrants” inside American borders, Novoa says, they fail to put “people first.” Indeed, the intrinsic dignity of every person should be respected, and it is true that many immigrants have suffered immense hardship in their home nations. But empathy should not be an excuse to overlook the fact that people who broke our laws to come here have no right to remain here. The authorities and the media should not leap to the conclusion that any particular individual belongs in this group, but if he is found to have no legal documentation, he should be treated accordingly.