"Illegal" vs. "Undocumented"

Friday, September 28, 2012


Jose Antonio Vargas (Gerry Salva-Cruz)

Since writing an article called "My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant" in the New York Times Magazine last year, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas has been trying to foster conversation about immigration issues. In a speech last week at the Online News Association conference, he announced his plan to track and hopefully influence news organizations away from using the term "illegal" to describe immigrants. Bob asks Vargas why he feels this change in nomenclature is important.

Latin Playboys - Crayon Sun


Jose Antonio Vargas

Hosted by:

Bob Garfield

Comments [30]


Sorry pal, but if you're feeling that put upon, methinks your beef should be with your parents for what they did, not with what words I might or might not use.

Feb. 09 2013 02:00 PM
Greg from Waco, Texas

Would love to read a transcript. Would be more user-friendly.

Oct. 04 2012 03:19 PM
BiffNotZeem from Seattle, WA

The term 'illegal alien' did not originate with Frank Luntz in 2005. It has been around for decades (from the 1920s, according to my brief, incomplete research). The band 'Genesis' had a single 'Illegal Alien' in the early 80s. Mr. Vargas is being dishonest by only omitting discussion of most of the history of the term and only mentioning Mr. Luntz' recent use of it.

Mr. Vargas' arguments have not convinced me that the terms 'illegal alien' or 'illegal immigrant' are imprecise. The terms precisely describe their status in violation of the law.

Further, Mr. Vargas' claim that 'illegal alien' and 'illegal immigrant' are the only times that the word 'illegal' is applied to a person. This is not true. I did searches of a variety of terms like 'illegal doctor' and 'illegal banker' and found examples of the terms being used.

For full disclosure, I worked in a European country and part way through my time there discovered that my employee did not file proper paperwork for me to work there and I was, in fact, working there illegally. I had no problem being referred to an as 'illegal alien' because that is what I was.

Oct. 02 2012 09:51 PM
Frederick Douglass Perry from OakTown CA

The majority go along not knowing what it is like like 2 not B them. Bob missed the FEELING the word "illegal" engendered in Mr. Jose Antonio Vargas. No I don't mean being of a different ethnic group, though in this Mr.Bob Garfield is still with the majority. No I mean a man who has daily lived with secrets, that is every waking hour, yet has managed to do Pulitzer Prize winning work Mr. Bob Garfield is still probably with the majority.

No worries
Frederick Douglass Perry

Oct. 02 2012 08:49 PM
David from Charlotte

If "illegal alien" is too imprecise for your taste, is "person-who-is-in-the-country-without-permission-and-should-be-deported-immediately" OK?

Is that precise enough?

Oct. 01 2012 07:29 PM
David Brower`

I'd be satisfied if every outlet that used "illegal immigrant" also used "torture" instead of "enhanced interrogation technique". (I accept that it is a word too far in wanting use of "illegal torture".)

Oct. 01 2012 03:56 PM

As an immigrant, I'm often torn when it comes to a lot of immigrant issues. However, we came into the country legally (and learned the language, which is another issue). Entering a country outside the normal legal processes or staying beyond your allotted time is an illegal act. There is no way around this fact. Calling it undocumented will in time have the same stigma. I would argue that there should be a stigma and a consequence because we don't want to encourage this type of immigration. Does this sound heartless? I don't mean it to. The fact is that my family and other families had to wait our turn. We had to fill out paperwork (sometimes more than once). We had to wait in lines. We had to fight to gain respect and learn a language. We had, in my case, to carry alien registration cards. We had to obey the laws of the country, otherwise we could be jailed or sent back to our countries of birth. We had to endure and contribute to our new society as the "Other:. This is not to say that some illegal or undocumented aliens don't do the same thing. However, just as it is maddening and upsetting when someone jumps in front of you when you are waiting in line for a service, it's even more frustrating when people jump or cuts into the immigration line. There were other people ahead of you and decided that they and the laws of your new country were not deserving of respect. Is that fair?

The reporter asks if there is any other case where people are labeled as illegal. Maybe not, but they are called criminals, pedophiles, rapists, etc. Felonies stay on their records and prevent them from getting certain jobs or even vote. But this may be beside the point. Why should someone who has come into the country then dictate the legal term used to describe their status?

Oct. 01 2012 02:33 PM

@ Stacy Harris

I understand your suggestion. Using the term "undocumented" as opposed to "illegal" does imply lack of culpability, which seems appropriate since a child brought into the U.S. illegally by his/her parents has no choice in the matter, but does the term we use have any material effect on the individual's legal status?

Oct. 01 2012 02:24 AM
Michael Villacres from Queens, NY

What I felt from Mr. Garfield interview with Mr. Vargas was that he, as he mentioned “unauthorized”, is against the “UN” in being “UN-American”; meaning the feeling of being different, not welcomed, and therefore “a foreigner.” This term and feelings will continue to be faced by newcomers to any new land; until the people choose to change.

Oct. 01 2012 12:46 AM
Michael Villacres from Queens, NY

Excusing illegal immigration is wrong because a people, citizens, immigrants, tourists, etc; we all must follow the laws of the country that we either live in or visit. You do not have a choice on what laws or rules, you will or will not follow. The choice before you is rather whither you will enter the country or not. But these are simple words in a complex world. In reality families, men and women, come to the USA, and other countries, to escape violence, poverty, high unemployment to be “rescued” by the chance at a better life that is safe, prosperous, and able to give educational, business, etc., opportunities to become apart of the family's legacy.
This is also wrong because of the other waiting immigrants that are following the law. It is a long wait, adrift in the sea of American bureaucracy, waiting for the word from the US embassy or consulate to “dock” at the port named USA. Some “drift” by the American embassy in Mexico or consulate in the Philippines. It is not fair to ALL the immigrants who have and are still waiting, by following the law, to then break the law. Like waiting in the long line at the DMV. You don't want to but you need to to get a driver's license to legally drive in a US state or territory. You could choose to just get into a car and start driving, but if you get into an accident or a police officer or trooper pulls you over you can get arrested and the vehicle may be impounded. This is illegal not “undocumented” driving.

Oct. 01 2012 12:44 AM
Michael Villacres from Queens, NY

It is incorrect to assume that illegal aliens do not pay into the US Economy, Social Security, etc; and are therefore “deadbeats”. This is a lie. Illegal aliens and legal immigrants do work in the USA. Work VISAs for immigrants and “Tax IDs” from the IRS, for illegal aliens, allow them to pay into but not collect Social Security by way of the Payroll Tax; this allows both groups to work and pay taxes in America.
We must listen as well as speak to each other to drown out the echoing shouts of hate, fear and anger, that have occupied our long American history, especially the present. Illegal immigration does not have only a Mexicans or Latino face. In truth illegal immigration includes Asians, Africans, Europeans, and yes Latinos. No one region or country is the sole source. Look to Italy, France, the United Kingdom (UK), etc; they deal with illegal immigration too. It is not just a legal problem that we in the USA face.

Oct. 01 2012 12:42 AM
Michael Villacres from Queens, NY

Hurling insults, yelling, cursing and screaming at one another will NOT bring us closer to any solution but on the doorstep of more wasted time, energy & opportunity all of which are resources that the United States of America (USA) as well as Americans cannot afford to waste any longer. It is wrong to villainize other people just because they have an opposite, different, or no point of view about the problem. This wrong has been done by both the “pro & anti-unauthorized” sides.
It is also wrong to not hear from the other side. The main reason why, from numerous news reports and National Geographic's “Border Wars”, Americans, white, black, polka-dot, men & women, etc; have called for the border fence, more border agents, patrols, & National Guard troops at the border; is because ranchers and other citizens are being harassed and terrorized by the cartel members going across the border. They don't feel safe NOT because they are racists or bigots.

Oct. 01 2012 12:42 AM
Michael Villacres from Queens, NY

There is no question that our US Immigration System needs to be updated, revised, and upgraded for the present. This is because of all the time we have wasted ignoring this problem, not issue, by amnesty or for the sake of yet another election or just because we, as a country, still do not want to deal with this. This problem has been with us and the rest of the world for a long time.

Oct. 01 2012 12:36 AM
Stacy Harris from Nashville, Tennessee

With some exceptions (which are problematic, as they are indicative of inconsistency) the laws of the United States distinguish between the actions or culpability of adults and those who have not yet reached the "age of reason."

This ideal standard should simply, without threat of oversimplification, guide us as we consider the right thing to do when tackling the verbiage attached to those who are not native-born American citizens nor aliens who have taken the prescribed steps to become American citizens: Adults (or those of or over the specified "age of reason") who willingly defy the immigration laws of the United States are illegal aliens. Their minor children who were, through no fault of their own, "along for the ride" must be classified with the term that should be reserved for them: "undocumented."

Stacy Harris
Publisher/Executive Editor/Media Critic
Stacy's Music Row Report

Sep. 30 2012 10:21 PM

I found the following quote on the New York Times' Public Editor's journal (http://publiceditor.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/09/24/is-illegal-immigrant-the-right-description/). According to Margaret Sullivan, the journal's author, this quote is from "Philip B. Corbett, the associate managing editor for standards at The Times." This quote is only a small part of the entire piece.

"Proposed alternatives like 'undocumented' seem really to be euphemisms — as though this were just a bureaucratic mix-up that can easily be remedied. Often those phrases seem deliberately chosen to try to soften or minimize the significance of the lack of legal status. We avoid those euphemisms just as we avoid phrases that tend to cast a more pejorative light on immigrants"

Sep. 30 2012 08:26 PM
Michael Villacres from Queens, NY

"To establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization..." - Article I, Section Eight, Clause Six. This is from our US Constitution giving the power of establishing US Citizenship to the US Congress. This is why Immigration is a legal issue not an opinionated one.

Sep. 30 2012 06:56 PM
J. Tyler Ballance from Squaw Valley, CA

8 USC Sec. 1325

(a) Improper time or place; avoidance of examination or inspection; misrepresentation and concealment of facts

Any alien who (1) enters or attempts to enter the United States at any time or place other than as designated by immigration officers, or (2) eludes examination or inspection by immigration officers, or (3) attempts to enter or obtains entry to the United States by a willfully false or misleading representation or the willful concealment of a material fact, shall, for the first commission of any such offense, be fined under title 18 or imprisoned not more than 6 months, or both, and, for a subsequent commission of any such offense, be fined under title 18, or imprisoned not more than 2 years, or both.

Sep. 30 2012 06:21 PM
Michael Villacres from Queens, NY

Test comment.

Sep. 30 2012 05:27 PM

KUDOS to Mr. Garfield for not letting it go with Mr. Vargas! There is no issue in this country that is more clear-cut: illegal is illegal. The solution is obviously less simple, but arguing over the label is avoiding the issue.

Sep. 30 2012 03:22 PM
Adam from Brooklyn

Bob, you blew this one. You made your point more than once about the futility of trading an offensive name for a less offensive name and how that usually just kicks it down the road which is fair enough for some things. But your premise implies that we should never have stopped accepting the N word in public discourse because of our ability to come up with 'colored'. I think you would agree that when the group you are offending says you should stop offending them, that in itself is reason to consider the change. Add to this the point that this is in fact a tested term, illegal alien, which is meant to produce maximum negative reaction from those who are not part of that group and I would think a journalist who wants to call the thing what it is would at least not call the thing what a political consultant told you to call it, regardless of the side you may be on.

Sep. 30 2012 10:33 AM
Erica P from NJ (in exilium)

I'm also sympathetic to Vargas' situation, but based on this interview with the gently persistent and logically consistent Garfield, he does his cause no good service. Vargas comes across as unfocussed and willing to let his understandably emotional response to the issue overrule and undermine rational discussion and, by inference, progress.

Sep. 30 2012 10:20 AM

As for violations of immigration laws being civil rather than criminal that's easily cured by making them felonies. Or we could just adopt Mexico's draconian immigration laws.

My biggest problem is that Mr Vargas and other "undocumented" are screwing over legal immigrants who follow the rules.

Sep. 30 2012 08:04 AM

Manipulating language is the first step in constructing a bogus narrative and big lie.

Here is a challenge to the media; documented or otherwise. The next time a professional journalist attends a private industry conference or reception intended for invited guests and it is overrun with non-journalists without an invite or ticket, remember they are to be called undocumented attendees who are to be afforded equal respect at the event.
The invited professional journalists with a conference badge are no better than the undocumented guests who "came out" and the limited space, swag, food and booze is to be shared because it would be awful to ask guests for their invitation and expel the undocumented guests.

It is easy for the elitist media to be generous with the public's resources in the abstract but don't get between them and their "free" Chardonnay and buffet or cheapen their elevated social status.

If the US Constitution can be living and breathing in regards to existing immigration laws than why can't the same be true for event registration at a private industry convention?

Sep. 29 2012 11:57 PM

Look, I have a lot of sympathy for those here illegally. If I were a Mexican national, say, I'd probably try to better my life and those of my family by coming here (during better economic times, perhaps) by hook or by crook. And if I ever discover that someone I know is here illegally, I certainly wouldn't turn him or her in to the authorities unless I had reason to believe they were doing something *else* illegal (i.e., committing felonies).

But I have no sympathy for the idea that we need to drop the term "illegal immigrant." Vargas is conflating "criminality" and "illegality." He's right that being here without papers is not a crime but a civil matter. But speeding, though not a crime, is illegal, as are parking in a red zone and slandering someone. I have no problem with the term "undocumented immigrant," and use it sometimes myself. But I'm not going to stop using "illegal immigrant" sometimes as well when the context calls for emphasis on the fact that their being here is, well, illegal. It just is.

Sep. 29 2012 10:47 PM

Myopic indeed. While I'm sympathetic to Mr. Vargas' situation, the fact remains that his presence in the US contravenes immigration policy, and is, therefore, illegal. Questions of fault and hurt feelings are immaterial to his status vis-à-vis the law.

To the extent that moving to the United States is seen by parents as a means of securing a better future for their children, it seems to me that proposals like the DREAM Act are constructed to explicitly incentivize illegal immigration. The message, in effect, is: "If you want a better future for your children, violate our immigration laws and we'll provide you with the ultimate reward."

Rather than manipulating undocumented individuals for short-term political gain (Democrats as a means of securing the Hispanic vote, and Republicans as a scapegoat for anti-immigrant hysteria), both parties need to produce a responsible immigration policy that solves this problem in the long term. Only then can we reasonably discuss granting the sort of privileges promised by the DREAM Act to individuals who are already here in contravention of current law.

Sep. 29 2012 08:40 PM
Rick Evans from 21702

Illegal vs. Undocumented:

Nice try Antonio.

If you arrive in the United States legally, i.e. on a student visa then overstay your visa you are documented.

But your presence in the country is illegal. Illegal immigrant is more precise and more encompassing than is undocumented immigrant.

Sep. 29 2012 01:47 PM
JM from Arlington, Va.

I don't like the term "undocumented" either, but the correctness of "illegal," especially as an adjective describing a person, leaves out a major part of the issue - the agent of the illegal action.

We can talk about "illegal immigration" and that's fine, but when talking about people it's just as ambiguous to call someone an illegal immigrant/alien as it is to call them an undocumented worker because in either case you're leaving out who did the illegal action or the reason for the lack of documentation.

If you parked your car in a spot reserved for documented persons with disabilities without presenting documentation in your car, we can call you someone who parked illegally but it would be needlessly ambiguous to call you an illegal parker. Especially if you weren't the one driving your car. ("Undocumented" on the other hand kinda suggests you may have left your placard in your purse at home.)

The adjective "illegal" applied to a person - just as unspecific as "undocumented" - is just a politicized way of villainizing a group of people and should only be used on a specific case-by-case basis.

Sep. 29 2012 11:34 AM

As a political scientist who has published book chapters about both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama presidencies (where the immigration issue is naturally among the issues discussed) I've been among those who prefer, and use, neither "illegal alien" nor "undocumented worker." The people we are talking about are UNAUTHORIZED RESIDENTS. That term ought to be neutrally descriptive enough to satisfy everyone. I've heard it occasionally (for example in congressional testimony by CBO staff) but not often enough.

Sep. 29 2012 06:27 AM

But the main point about the people in question is that they are in the United States in contravention of the law. "Illegal," as it were.

Bob Garfield quite rightly pointed out that "illegal," whether a civil wrong or a criminal wrong, is the correct and best-descriptive term.

And indeed, "undocumented" is an incorrect and poorly-descriptive term. Because my guess is that in some form or fashion, even Mr. Vargas is "documented." As a person born in Mexico, with a birthdate and a birthplace and named parents. With a driver's license, and perhaps some tax decords. Lots of documentation. Vargas is "documented." He's just residing in the United States illegally. As an alien who is documented but not qualifying for legal residence or citizenship under the law.

Sep. 28 2012 11:44 PM
Zak from Lancaster, PA

This reminds me of "Gaming" versus "Gambling" -- trying to use a more vague and less negative word to increase public acceptance. Just as "gambling" is a subset of "gaming" and the only word to really describe it, so "illegal" is the only correct term for someone who's in the country illegally. "Undocumented" just sounds like a technical problem; someone lost their papers.
We can talk about amnesty or some other solution that stops short of mass-deportation, but please don't pretend this isn't a legal issue. "Undocumented" is one of the signposts that indicate liberal bias.

Sep. 28 2012 06:10 PM

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