Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Illegal Immigrants

Posted by Neal on October 15, 2012

With the recently re-ignited debate over the term illegal immigrant, I have heard all the arguments against using the term, including:

  1. It is politically divisive or inflammatory.
  2. It presumes guilt before due process has been done.
  3. It is inaccurate in characterizing people who entered legally but overstayed their visa, or did not come here of their own accord.
  4. It is nonsensical, because illegal refers to acts, not to people.

I will grant (1), and add that the same applies to the euphemistic undocumented immigrant (and the dysphemistic illegal alien). I will also grant (2), but add that this is fixable with the well-accepted use of alleged in cases where there is doubt. I will also grant (3). But as for (4), this argument is just plain silly, and grasping at straws.

I will grant that when illegal modifies a noun, that noun usually refers to an action. I will further grant that when it does modify a noun that refers to a thing, it usually means that the thing is illegal to possess, as in illegal drugs and illegal weapons. Using those collocations as analogies, we would expect illegal immigrant to mean an immigrant that it is illegal for someone to possess–in other words, a victim of human trafficking. That, of course, is not the meaning that it has.

In fact, that is a good argument (in addition to arguments about dehumanization) for abandoning the term illegal alien. However, that still doesn’t mean that illegal immigrant is nonsense. When the noun is the agentive form of a verb, and the adjective is the morphological analog of a manner adverb, there is a common, productive rule of semantic composition that gets you to the accepted meaning. Let me illustrate with an example unburdened by controversy. If I were to say, “Sandy is a deep thinker,” it would be willfully obtuse to say, “Hey, wait a minute! People can’t be deep!” If I were to tell you, “Lee is a beautiful dancer,” I could be telling the truth even if Lee’s face, when covered by a paper bag, could still make clocks lose two minutes per hour. In short,

dances beautifully : beautiful dancer :: thinks deeply : deep thinker :: immigrates illegally : illegal immigrant

Object to the term illegal immigrant on ethical, political, or legal grounds if you want to. But don’t resort to claiming the term embodies sloppy semantics, when it’s the most natural way to refer to someone who immigrated illegally. That just makes it look like you’ll accept any old argument that favors your side, and weakens the more valid ones.

Update, Oct. 16, 2012: Changed list item #2 from “were born here” (which I’ve known since elementary school automatically confers citizenship) to what I meant to say: “entered legally but overstayed their visa”.

17 Responses to “Illegal Immigrants”

  1. Neal said

    Searching through previous posts, I see I’ve used the term illegal alien here and here. In keeping with the conclusion I reached in this post, I now renounce the term in favor of illegal immigrant. I acknowledge, as I did above, that it is politically divisive, but I use it because I see no better term, and it is semantically accurate.

    • Lune Keltkar said

      The relevant US Code

      neither defines nor uses the term “illegal immigrant”; instead, the code defines and uses “unauthorized alien”, a precise term that most closely reflects reality. By your specious reasoning, someone who drives without a license is an “illegal driver”, someone who practices medicine without a license is an “illegal doctor”, someone who sells drugs on the street is an “illegal pharmacist”, and someone who prescribes grammar without sense is an “illegal linguist”.


      • gacorley said

        The logic would define “illegal driver”, “illegal doctor”, and “illegal pharmacist” in the way you describe, but there are no laws against specious grammar advice, no licensing requirements for linguists (yes, there are accredited degrees, but you can theoretically do linguistics work without one), and grammar advice is not really the main activity of linguists anyway — it’s far more commonly done by non-linguists who happen to be interested.

      • Neal said

        Yes, “illegal driver” would be an example of the same kind of process that produced “illegal immigrant,” “deep thinker” and “big eater”. I would accept that as a possible meaning, in fact, though I note that meaning doesn’t happen to have become salient (yet) — maybe because there’s the more specific “unlicensed driver”. But as for “illegal pharmacist,” “illegal doctor,” and “illegal linguist,” no: those nouns are not the agentive noun associated with some verb. “Pharmacize” and “linugicize” are not verbs, AFAIK, nor is “doct” (except as a playful or child-generated backformation).

  2. This is one of those cases where I will unequivocally state my preference for a term, and my choice is undocumented immigrant. This is largely because I don’t like the characterization of undocumented immigrants as criminals. Technically, they are committing a crime by US law, but consider my usage part of my protest against that policy. My opinion is we should be less strict in our immigration restrictions in general and focus on deporting those people who commit other crimes here. But, that’s all from my political views. I certainly wouldn’t bring up some silly syntactic argument against it. That’s the kind of thing that stems from people just believing any argument that supports their moral position, not caring whether it is true or even relevant.

    • CRYSTAL said

      we should be less strict are you stupid.yes your right is is illegal in the US so im wondering why there not sent back.theres higher crime,drugs,and less work for americans.

  3. dw said

    Someone who was born here is automatically a US citizen and so cannot be an illegal/undocumented immigrant.

  4. Lane said

    Besides thanking Crystal for her cogent analysis of immigration policy, I’d like to offer two thoughts.

    One is that while I’m extremely immigration-friendly (sorry, Crystal, that was sarcasm earlier), we have immigration laws, and if someone breaks them they are (accepting Neil’s linguistic point, like “beautiful dancer”) an illegal immigrant. We may wish for fewer people to be made illegal by a restrictive regime, but that does not change the fact that they have immigrated illegally under the current law. (2) and the first half of (3) are red herrings because a large majority of the people who harp on about illegal immigration usually go on to state how wonderful they think America’s legal immigration process is. (Whether this is window-dressing or not, they do. They say “all immigrants should wait in the same legal line; illegal immigrants are jumping the queue unfairly.”) I took a longer crack at the case here, saying why I thought “illegals” was too harsh (illegal being a head noun all by itself) whereas “illegal immigrant” was accurate, current and reasonably concise.

    To the linguistic point: heartland America might recognize a close parallel to “illegal immigrant”: “ineligible receiver.” In football, some players may go downfield and take a pass, while others may not. When a left tackle who hasn’t been declared eligible catches a pass 10 yards out in the flat, he’s not an ineligible *player* or human being, but he is illegally receiving, making him an “ineligible receiver”, and people often refer to them as “illegal receivers” as well.

  5. the ridger said

    I’m not crazy about illegal simply because, well, it’s a civil offense, right? I mean, they aren’t jailed, they’re just deported. On the other hand, I suppose that jaywalking is illegal too.

    • I’m pretty sure it’s criminal. Also, many immigrants found to be in the country illegally are detained — often without adequate evidence, which leads to all kind of issues.

    • Ellen K. said

      Being a civil offense doesn’t make something not illegal. And it’s hard to deport someone without detaining them.

  6. acilius said

    I have a reservation about “illegal immigrant.” It is a long, awkward expression (six syllables, two lexical items, several highly abstract notions embedded in it,) so people will naturally want to shorten it. And the form to which it always seems to be shortened is “illegal.” As in, “How many illegals are in the USA?” That usage doesn’t exactly invite the full range of opinions as to what our policies should be with regard to immigration. Granted, a phrase like “undocumented worker” also signals a strong preference in the same regard. Using either term suggests that the speaker has set his or her face firmly against one side of the discussion. Perhaps if we as a society declared both expressions off-limits in polite conversation, people would come up with a truly neutral term. Of course, there would always be the danger that one or both of the expressions would sneak back into the language and steel American jaws, but that’s just something we’d have to guard against.

  7. I’m not entirely convinced. “Dances beautifully : beautiful dancer :: thinks deeply : deep thinker” suggests a characteristic of an ongoing activity. “Immigrant” means “someone who has immigrated” as opposed to “someone who immigrates.” So the third term of your analogy isn’t quite parallel. I’m not certain you’d use the term “deep thinker” when referring to someone who had one deep idea a while back and never since. (“Ineligible receiver” is another interesting example, but it’s defined _as a phrase_ in the rules of football. Moreover, “illegal receiver” does not refer to a player who one time has received illegally.)

    I can see how “illegal” can be taken to describe the act of immigration, perhaps as shorthand, but it’s also true that the phrase is susceptible to the interpretation that it describes the person. Acillus’s observation of the prevalence of “illegals” shows that the latter reading is common. So I’d be sympathetic to a modified version of argument 4, saying that the phrase facilitates or even promotes this unfortunate reading. The original argument isn’t universally true, but concerns about “illegal” being taken to refer to people isn’t silly.

    I have a general prejudice against labels of all sorts, positive or negative, since they often obscure the true nature of the subjects. This is especially true when speakers and listeners may have strong prejudices (positive or negative) about the subjects.

  8. Daniel said

    Full disclosure: I’m a functional linguist, so I tend to be skeptical of people talking about what “words mean” in the absence of a person who used those words to encode a specific message. Also, I’m pretty far to the left of mainstream in American politics, and I’ve spent years working with immigrants, so you can guess what my personal choice of phrase is.

    That said, my intuition is that the problem with “illegal immigrant” isn’t as much in the semantics of adjective-noun compounds as in the associations with the word “illegal.” The top hits of a COCA search for “illegal [*nn]” are “immigrants, immigration, aliens,” and after that we get into “drugs, weapons, substances, acts, dumping, gambling, arms,” as well as “workers,” which seems to be a euphemism for “immigrants.” Going down the list, other collocates that refer to human beings are always other terms for *ahem* undocumented workers: “residents,” “entrants” (into the U.S.), “population.” The top 100 collocations in COCA don’t show any “illegal” + person pairings except for “illegal immigrants” and synonyms.

    So the question becomes, if the language permits “illegal N” to mean “person who did N in an illegal way,” why is N nearly exclusively reserved to signify “immigrate into the United States”? Why isn’t Bernie Madoff an “illegal banker,” or Jack Kevorkian an “illegal doctor,” or Lance Armstrong an “illegal cyclist”?

    The CDA researcher in me says, we’re making a class of “illegal things” here, that is implicitly expressing an ideology about the nature of illegality. The contents of that class include assault weapons, addictive drugs, the pollution of waterways with industrial runoff, cutting trees on protected land, running a casino out of your basement … and sneaking across the US border because conditions in your home country are so dire that you have no hope for a better life there.

    • Neal said

      Excellent points. I meant to second a suggestion that one person made in one of the news articles I read somewhere: Why not call companies that hire illegal immigrants “illegal employers”?

  9. acilius said

    I’ve taken the liberty of quoting from this post and some of the comments in a post on my blog. Please let me know if I’ve gone too far.

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