Imprecise Language and the Immigration Debate

Written by Alexander J. Segal on

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In this post, I will examine an interesting op-ed by Donna Locke published in the Tennessean titled “Trump goes after illegal entrants to U.S., not all immigrants” [PDF version].1

There is much in Locke's post with which I disagree. For example, Locke seems to advocate for “immigration control” based in part on the fact that the population would grow for many years even with no immigration at all. Readers of my blog will note that while I am a proponent of effective enforcement of our immigration laws [see blog], I am also a strong supporter of legal immigration as a force that is in the national benefit [see blog].

However, while I disagree with Locke on many particulars, she makes an important point with which I agree regarding the effect of language on the immigration debate. She takes issue with terminology from the media and from those who support laxer immigration laws to “blur the distinctions between legal and illegal” in the immigration context.

In the United States illegally

Locke notes that many outlets refer to those in the United States illegally as “immigrants.” The issue with this is that an “immigrant” is someone who is in the United States with legal authorization, specifically, an alien who is lawfully admitted for permanent residence. Immigrants are distinguished from other classes of aliens who are in the United States legally — such as nonimmigrants and parolees. Under no circumstance is an individual who illegally entered or illegally remained the United States or who for whatever reason lost his or her legal status an “immigrant.”

To describe individuals in the United States illegally as “immigrants” implies “bias,” as Locke notes. It is important to remember — especially for those who frequent our website and are interested in the immigration laws — that the vast majority of people are exceedingly unfamiliar with the technicalities of U.S. immigration law. This is why describing those who are here illegally as “immigrants” has a tendency to sway the immigration debate. It is likely that, to laymen, reading about President Trump (or any other president) deporting “immigrants” sounds quite different than President Trump deporting an “illegal alien” or someone who is in the United States without legal authorization. Of course, an “immigrant” is only subject to removal on specified grounds, whereas someone who is in the country illegally is subject to removal based on the fact that he or she is in the country illegally. Locke also noted the bizarre push to stop using the term “alien.” The term alien is not sinister at all; it is simply the technical term in immigration law for referring to those who are not citizens or nationals of the United States.

Using precise language is not callous, but in fact necessary in many cases. I have represented countless clients who faced removal for being in the United States illegally for one reason or another. Effective representation begins with understanding the laws and the situation. This certainly does not involve pretending that a client, who is without status and removable is, in fact an immigrant in good standing under the immigration laws.

In order to improve the system of immigration laws, it is in the best interest of everyone to have an honest debate about immigration. An honest debate about immigration involves people who actually understand what they are debating. This in turn supports the notion that the terms we use should reflect the reality of the immigration laws, not the opinions of one side of a many-sided debate. Save for open borders advocates, it is in the best interests of everyone to actually distinguish between those who are here legally and illegally, and to further distinguish within those categories on the basis of legal status and how and when people came to be here illegally.


  1. Locke, Donna. “Trump goes after illegal entrants to U.S., not all immigrants.” Tennessean. Aug. 10, 2017.