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In Immigration Debate, 'Undocumented' vs. 'Illegal' Is More Than Just Semantics

On Monday, we pointed to how the bipartisan Gang of Eight senators mostly avoided the term "illegal immigrant" in the language of their immigration reform plan.

It looks like President Obama did the same in his address on the issue the next day.

Colorlines took a look at the text from the president's speech and found that Obama used the term just once, but used the term "undocumented immigrants" four times.


The language used in the debate over immigration has itself become the subject of fierce contention. Advocates for immigration reform (like Colorlines) say the term "illegal immigrant" is dehumanizing and racialized. They point to a 2005 memo by Frank Luntz, a Republican consultant, that called on the party to use that term in public statements to push for tighter immigration enforcement.

The term has become so loaded that it prompted the Hispanic Leadership Network, a conservative group, to issue a memo to Republicans on Tuesday calling for Republicans to stop using "illegal immigrant," too.

"When talking about immigrants: Do use 'undocumented immigrant' when referring to those here without documentation," the organization wrote. "Please consider these tonally sensitive messaging points as you discuss immigration, regardless of your position."

The memo comes as Republicans are trying to repair their image among Latino voters, who voted overwhelmingly for President Obama in November. A poll by Fox News Latino found that 46 percent of Latino voters think "illegal immigrants" is offensive while a little over a third said they thought it was accurate.

But the term "undocumented immigrant" is not without its own political connotations. It's been the term of choice for activists in favor of reform; Obama's choice to use it seems to signal that he's on their side in the debate.


Jonathan Rosa, a linguistic anthropologist at the University of Massachusetts, told NPR that both phrases muddle the conversation about immigration reform.

"'Undocumented' and 'illegal' seem to be signaling one's stance when it comes to immigration reform than it is about characterizing the situation in a precise way," Rosa said. He said the State Department's definition of immigrant explicitly refers to lawful status, making the term "illegal immigrant" a contradiction. But undocumented immigrant doesn't quite fit either because the term "makes it seem as though there's [just been] an administrative mistake, as if a document wasn't issued."

But he said that the fight over the terminology isn't a trivial, since the ways people use language can have social consequences. "It's not simply a way of describing the world or representing the world -- it's a way of taking action in the world," he said.

And in case you were wondering: Rosa says he uses the term "unauthorized migrant" in his academic writing. "A 'migrant" is just someone who is moving across national borders," he said. "It doesn't make any presumptions about the legal status of people."

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