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Illegal immigrant, illegal alien, undocumented person: what’s the right term?

Filed by KOSU News in Feature, Public Insight Network.
July 2, 2013

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The bill offering a pathway to citizenship to 11 million illegal immigrants in the US has passed the Senate, but there’s no word on what the House might do with it. But wait – illegal immigrant? Is that the right term? Through the Public Insight Network, we asked you that very question.

“….he moved to New Mexico this summer because he’s an illegal immigrant, and he was fearful of Arizona’s new immigration law.”

Melanie Bayles of Bartlesville followed right behind CNN, CBS, NBC, ABC, and nearly every other major media organization, going with the straightforward term.

“Why not call it what it is? They’re here, but they’re not here legally. They should not have the same status as a descriptor as those who have gone through the legal process.”

That reasoning was the one centered around the illegal immigrant term. But that’s not enough for OSU professor and Stillwater resident Randi Eldevik. She says it ignores the past.

“I’m always thinking about the rather casual and informal nature of European settlement in this country in the 16th, 17th, 18, and 19th centuries. I’m pretty sure that a lot of white Europeans that came to this country didn’t have very formal documentation.”

And in just a couple of seconds, the debate over immigration diverges. There’s more than two sides to the discussion over the term too. With so many options, that only complicates the substance of the issue.

By the way, this all started after the Associated Press decided to drop the term illegal immigrant, instead moving towards person living in the country illegally. A subtle change, but one that Tom Neal of Tulsa noticed.

“Moving away from inflammatory language would allow us to deal with this in a more humane and rational way.”

He didn’t take any of KOSU’s suggestions in our PIN survey, instead going with “Neighbor is welcoming”. Right, neighbor.

“You’re a valued person and I recognize that you’re contributing something to us, to us as a society. To me, that’s more important than the status, immigrant, new immigrant, old immigrant. We’re all immigrants on some level or another.”

And the depth of the thinking extended to every term, whether it be illegal immigrant, illegal alien, undocumented immigrant, immigrant living here illegally, or any of the other options.

Robert Ames from Altus served in the Philippines and Italy as a member of the Navy in the 1980s. Instead of calling them enemy combatants, the term was unauthorized foreign national. A bit clunky, he acknowledged, but it also keeps the prejudice out of it…

“We’re not making a value judgment until we know more status about them.”

The choices span the spectrum, as you’ve heard. What didn’t really differ was the importance of whatever the final choice was.

“It’s going to be very important. The change is…it’s time.”

“Yes, definitely.”

This is a nationwide project, as part of the Public Insight Network.  And if you want to join the Public Insight Network, or PIN for short, click here. You’ll get an email here and there, simply asking for your thoughts.

For all the questions about the term itself, that’s only one small piece in this story. Wednesday, we hear two different stories from two very different people: one an illegal immigrant, one here legally.

2 Responses to “Illegal immigrant, illegal alien, undocumented person: what’s the right term?”

  1. Freedom1958 says:

    Isn't it obvious? The original term "Illegal Alien" is really the only correct term that accurately describes all those who are illegally on our soil.
    Whether the person overstayed a visa, willfully crossed our border illegally, or was brought over as a child, this term describes them all.
    The fact that those who are accurately described by this phrase, don't like it, is beside the point.

  2. Guest says:

    None of the terms offered describe the situation accurately. You should take a poll among the Native Americans to see what they called the people who first came to their shores. Did the first colonists back in the 1600's have a "green card"? Was Columbus a legal visitor to the new world? Did he have a visa? If you are referring to Mexicans, how about calling them Returning Residents since history shows that at one time California, Texas and the south west belonged to them and they were forced out or cheated out of their land. Who are the real illegals?

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