Here's an evergreen question: what do you call an immigrant who is "living in the country without legal permission," as the Associated Press might put it? 

Last week the AP, in response to questions from readers, explained why it uses the term "illegal immigrant", despite the fact that some people find it problematic (the "without legal permission" thing is, per their style guide, an acceptable alternative). In the AP's view, it's "simply a legal reality." Kerry Howley, at Slate, takes exception with the AP's reasoning. Her reasoning is that "illegal" has normative connotations, and--given that it's mostly been used in reference to recent immigration from Mexico--a racial dimension. Her preference:

“Undocumented” places the burden on the bureaucracy rather than on the moral integrity of any particular person. That’s the correct position in my view, and I reveal prior judgments when I use the word "undocumented" just as restrictionists do when they say "illegal." What’s bizarre is that the Associated Press, having deemed “undocumented” a loaded term, thinks “illegal” to be perfectly descriptive, sprung from nowhere, privileging no side of the debate. It may be that there is no objective term with which to describe people guilty of being in a particular space without state permission. 



My preference, as I've noted before, is "unauthorized immigrant." As the AP says, "undocumented" is euphemistic. The problem with unauthorized immigration isn't that people are forgetting to fill out their paperwork, and there are plenty of American citizens who don't have documents. More problematically (as long as we're already in pretty subtle territory) "undocumented" posits a causal connection between having documents and having rights, which isn't correct. This is America, not Casablanca. It's the other way around. This is also the issue with voter ID--the right to vote doesn't devolve from your driver's license. 


As for the AP's preferred term, "illegal immigrant" doesn't have the dehumanizing edge that "illegals" does, and the point about the legal reality of the situation is a good one. There is, however, an objection from logic. "Legal" and "illegal" generally refer to actions and activities, not persons. The AP also explains that it talks about "illegal loggers" and "illegal miners," and that might be okay, because a logger is someone who engages in the activity of logging in regular, recurrent way. There's some gray area here, partly because of the gray area in the laws themselves--as the AP notes, it sometimes uses other terms when a person's legal status is unclear or subject to change--but "unauthorized" still strikes me as the most precise and least problematic option. 
 


11/05/2012 14:16

Erica,

You say,

"There is, however, an objection from logic. "Legal" and "illegal" generally refer to actions and activities, not persons."

But your logic is incorrect. Immigration is an action -- repeat after me -- no one has to leave their home country and come to America. Some people (not many in Mexico) leave their countries because of political or religious persecution. However, the ACT of leaving their home country turns them into an immigrant (or maybe a refugee).

So their status as an "immigrant", whether legal or illegal, is bound up in the action they took to get into this country. There is a big difference between applying legally at a US consulate or embassy and making a run for the border.

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Dave
11/07/2012 15:18

"It may be that there is no objective term with which to describe people guilty of being in a particular space without state permission."

Umm, as a general rule isn't "illegal" the "objective term" used to "describe people guilty" of engaging in an action without state permission, when such action is regulated by the state? I can also accept "unauthorized" as an appropriate substitute for "illegal." (I'll add, by the way, that I personally believe in allowing greater levels of legal immigration. Believing that immigration laws should be changed, however, doesn't change the reality of the current situation.) I think that the AP's analogy to "illegal loggers" and "illegal miners" makes sense.

I find it tough to believe that Ms. Howley would accept "undocumented' as an appropriate, non-euphemistic description for someone engaging in a regulated activity without state permission, if she agreed that such activity should be regulated.

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