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Immigration Needs Fixing, Not The Language


A Washington State University professor says she will deduct points from her students’ papers if they use accurate terms to describe illegal immigration.

The professor, Rebecca Fowler, distributed a syllabus for her “Women and Popular Culture” class that forbids students from using words like “illegal immigrant.” This news follows in a campaign over the past two years of liberal activists trying to scrub the mainstream lexicon of distinctions between legal and illegal immigration. In 2013, a campaign called “Drop the I-Word” pressured the Associated Press, USA Today, and Los Angeles Times to stop using the word “illegal immigrant.” The liberal website Fusion even created a Twitter app to passively aggressively “correct” people who tweet “illegal immigrant.”

Led by activist journalists like Jose Antonio Vargas, whose parents sent him to the United States in violation of its immigration laws when he was twelve, and has lived here since, illegal immigrant supporters argue the word can be “dehumanizing.” “I am here illegally, but as a person I am not ‘illegal,’” Vargas said.

But neither is Vargas “undocumented,” the word he used to describe himself in his 2011 New York Times Magazine article. Vargas had a fake green card and other fraudulent documents his grandfather, a naturalized American citizen, purchased to keep him living illegally in America.

Call a Spade a Spade

Vargas’ story may be sympathetic. He has spent most of his life in America. He identifies with being American. But the salient fact remains that he is here illegally. Not only did his grandfather illegally procure fake documents for him, he used fake documents to get a driver’s license and further documents that helped him find jobs and remain in the country in violation of the law. Whether or not one supports him or others being granted amnesty, they can’t change those facts.

He is not ‘undocumented,’ as if he just happened to have lost his documents and did nothing wrong.

One need not argue for his arrest or deportation to make a limited argument in favor of using accurate terminology. Vargas and others who have committed the same crimes are illegal immigrants, holders of fraudulent documents, or people who are residing in the United States illegally. The later turn of phrase is long and unwieldy, so it is shortened to “illegal immigrant.” He is not “undocumented,” as if he just happened to have lost his documents and did nothing wrong. One could call him “fraudulently documented.”

Fusion wrote that illegal immigrants can be called “unauthorized immigrants.” That sounds like an accurate phrase, as illegal immigrants are not legally authorized to have immigrated. As such, they have immigrated illegally. According to attorney Brett Snider, writing for’s blog, improper entry is a crime. However, Fusion and other liberal media outlets rarely use the word “unauthorized immigrants.”

Truth Isn’t Dehumanizing

Is “illegal immigrant” “dehumanizing”? That’s an undefined emotional appeal. What does “dehumanizing” mean? “Illegal” is defined as not being in accord with the law. Someone who isn’t in accord with the law is still a person. “Illegal,” just like “unauthorized” and even “undocumented,” is an adjective that defines one’s immigration status. It could also define one’s status in relation to other questions about legalities of one’s actions.

For example, what would you call a fisherman who invades foreign waters and fishes illegally in a foreign country? When two South Koreans were caught illegally fishing in the waters of Sierra Leone, The New York Times called them “illegal fishermen.” What about a cab driver who picks up passengers at the airport without the legally required license? According to the New York Daily News, they are “illegal cab drivers.”

‘Illegal’ is defined as not being in accord with the law.

A street vendor without the proper license? Per the Los Angeles Times and ABC Eyewitness News 11, “illegal street vendors” and “illegal vendors.”

Words have meanings. In all of the above examples, the qualifier “illegal” was necessary to make a distinction between legal and illegal operators of nominally legal services. We do not want to label immigration itself as a crime. It isn’t, and we should welcome immigrants. That is why it is important to make a distinction in our language.

Lawrence Downes argued in The New York Times in 2007, “It [the word ‘illegal immigrant’] leaves its target diminished as a human, a lifetime member of a presumptive criminal class.” That’s not exactly true. Illegal vendors can pay for their violations by paying fines or doing jail time and can theoretically be allowed return to the streets as legal vendors if they abide by regulations and get licensed. Vargas said he could become a legal citizen if he went back to the Philippines, waited 10 years, and went through the legal process to immigrate.

Is that an overly harsh policy? Maybe. The laws that apply to legal immigrants do require long waits. But if those policies are too harsh then we should reform the policies, not the words.