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Naming Conventions (Immigration)

by Wikipedia

This is a proposed guideline for the use of the terms "undocumented immigrant," "illegal immigrant," and "illegal alien" on Wikipedia.

Eventually, it ought to recommend a term to be used when it is impossible to avoid the use of an adjectival description for people who enter or reside in a country without legal authorization. At the moment, it contains three proposed guidelines, recommmending "undocumented immigrant," "illegal immigrant," and "unauthorized immigrant" respectively. When a consensus is reached by Wikipedians on the talk page, one should be kept and all others removed, with the arguments that led to their defeat merged.


Wikipedia's articles on immigration policy are, at present, extremely inconsistent in their use of terms to describe illegal immigration. A person who enters or resides in a country without legal authorization is sometimes described as an asylum seeker, sometimes as an undocumented immigrant, sometimes as an unauthorized immigrant, sometimes as an unlawful immigrant or illegal immigrant, and sometimes as an illegal alien. A consistent policy is desirable in order to resolve controversies.

The more common terms are all politically charged in the United States, the location of a substantial number of English-language Wikipedia users, and the controversy exists just as much in the offline world as in Wikipedia. Supporters of granting citizenship to people who have entered or reside in the country without legal authorization tend to use the term "undocumented immigrant," while supporters of increased enforcement of immigration laws tend to use the terms "illegal immigrant" and "illegal alien."[1]

The issue is less pressing in other English-speaking countries, where the vast majority of immigrants who enter without legal authorization tend to apply for asylum, and are therefore known uncontroversially as "asylum seekers." Unfortunately, this term does not apply to the vast majority of immigrants at issue in the United States.

Generally, article naming should give priority to what the majority of English speakers would most easily recognize, with a reasonable minimum of ambiguity, while at the same time making linking to those articles easy and second nature. Consequently, we need to establish from reliable sources, what the majority of English speakers use globally.

Reference works

Merriam-Webster Online defines the term alien as:

  b. relating, belonging, or owing allegiance to another country or government : FOREIGN (Nov. 11, 2006)

Therefore, the term alien is the correct term for anyone in the country who is not a citizen or legal resident. This includes, for example, tourists, as well as those in the country illegally.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services uses the term alien to refer to people in a variety of status circumstances other than those of citizens and legal residents. For example,

  • alien worker
  • alien spouse
  • alien fiancé
  • alien relative

In fact, the USCIS even assigns an identifier called an Alien Number. Therefore, the term alien is both technically and legally the correct term.

A Dictionary of Modern American Usage states regarding this issue:

The usual and prefererable term in American English is illegal alien. The other forms have arisen are needless euphemisms and should be avoided as verging on doublespeak. The problem with undocumented is that it's intended to mean 'not having the requisite documents to enter or stay in a country legally.' But the word ordinarily means "unaccounted for," which is a benign-sounding word when referring to one who has crossed a border in violation of the law... Illegal alien is not an opprobrious epithet: it describes one who is present in a country in violation of the immigration laws.

The AP Stylebook recommends "illegal immigrant."[2]

On the other hand, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists states regarding the term, "illegal alien":

Avoid... The pertinent federal agencies use this term for individuals who do not have documents to show they can legally visit, work or live here. Many find the term offensive and dehumanizing because it criminalizes the person rather than the actual act of illegally entering or residing in the United States. The term does not give an accurate description of a person's conditional U.S. status, but rather demeans an individual by describing them as an alien. At the 1994 Unity convention, the four minority journalism groups – NAHJ, Asian American Journalists Association, Native American Journalists Association and National Association of Black Journalists – issued the following statement on this term: "Except in direct quotations, do not use the phrase illegal alien or the word alien, in copy or in headlines, to refer to citizens of a foreign country who have come to the U.S. with no documents to show that they are legally entitled to visit, work or live here. Such terms are considered pejorative not only by those to whom they are applied but by many people of the same ethnic and national backgrounds who are in the U.S. legally."

NAHJ states similarly regarding the term "illegal immigrant":

The term criminalizes the person rather than the actual act of illegally entering or residing in the United States without federal documents. Terms such as illegal alien or illegal immigrant can often be used pejoratively in common parlance and can pack a powerful emotional wallop for those on the receiving end. Instead, use undocumented immigrant or undocumented worker, both of which are terms that convey the same descriptive information without carrying the psychological baggage. Avoid using illegal(s) as a noun.[3]

The opinions of advocacy groups and other interested and involved parties should be accepted in the proper context. Groups such as the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and the Pew Hispanic Center take positions on issues involving immigration, and therefore are biased parties regarding immigration and related issues.

On the gripping hand, the Pew Hispanic Center uses "unauthorized migrant." They state:

This report uses the term “unauthorized migrant” to mean a person who resides in the United States, but who is not a U.S. citizen, has not been admitted for permanent residence, and is not in a set of specific authorized temporary statuses permitting longer-term residence and work. (See Passel, Van Hook, and Bean 2004 for further discussion.) Various labels have been applied to this group of unauthorized migrants, including “undocumented immigrants,” “illegals,” “illegal aliens,” and “illegal immigrants.” The term “unauthorized migrant” best encompasses the population in our data because many migrants now enter the country or work using counterfeit documents and thus are not really "undocumented,” in the sense that they have documents, but not completely legal documents.[4]

The American Heritage Dictionary defines the adjective "undocumented" as:

1. Not supported by written evidence: undocumented income tax deductions; undocumented accusations.
2. Not having the needed documents, as for permission to live or work in a foreign country.

It defines the adjective "illegal" as:

1. Prohibited by law.
2. Prohibited by official rules: an illegal pass in football.
3. Unacceptable to or not performable by a computer: an illegal operation.[5]

Princeton University's Word Net defines the adjective "unauthorized" as:

1. Not endowed with authority.
2. Without official authorization; "an unauthorized strike"; "wildcat work stoppage."[6]

Where possible, avoid controversial terms

Where possible, because of the controversial nature of this issue, use of any of the above terms should be avoided. There are several potential options for compromise:

  1. Increasing specificity, for example by referring to a specific person or organization rather than a controversial category by which they might be classified.
  2. Retreating to generality, as in the title of the article on the 2006 United States immigration reform protests.
  3. Avoiding a description of persons in favor of a description of actions, as in the title of the article on illegal immigration, to which undocumented immigrant, illegal immigrant, and illegal alien are redirects.

Option 1: Where compromises are not possible, use "undocumented immigrant"

Where avoiding the use of an adjectival description for people who enter or reside in a country without legal authorization is not possible, the term "undocumented immigrant" should be preferred. Controversial terms should be used only in direct quotation. All terms are controversial to some—so this will be difficult.


The neutral point of view policy tells us:

Assert facts, including facts about opinions — but don't assert opinions themselves. There is a difference between facts and opinions. By "fact" we mean "a piece of information about which there is no serious dispute.

The page also recommends:

Let the facts speak for themselves.

"Undocumented immigrant" is a term which factually describes the behavior which is illegal and which is alleged to make a person illegal. There is no serious dispute about whether immigrants who enter or reside in a country illegally lack the required official documents, and are therefore undocumented. There is serious dispute about whether those persons are themselves "illegal" because of their illegal behavior.


The term "undocumented" is not a simple description of the facts. It implies that that the person has a legal presence in the country in question. It implies that the person merely forgot his or her papers, similar to an individual not carrying an identity card in a country that requires identity cards to be shown to peace officers.

The term "undocumented" is not necessarily accurate if interpreted literally. Many "undocumented" individuals have documents, however they are either stolen, expired, revoked, or forged. In other cases, they may be workers on a visa that specifically prohibits employment (i.e. a visitor or student visa). However, by working, they are potentially depriving a person with the legal right to work of a job. They are still immigrants (non-native persons intending to reside permanently in a country), but by working, they are "illegal", that is, violating the law. They, however, still may have some kind of documents purportedly or formerly establishing their legal presence in the country and/or their legal right to work.


The term "illegal immigrant" is grammatically unusual, although it is technically acceptable. In most cases, "illegal" is used as an adjective to apply to acts, not people. When there's a curfew for young people in a town, those who stay out are "teenagers on the streets illegally", but not "illegal teenagers," or "illegals." When the offence is driving faster than the speed limit, taking a bribe, engaging in acts of free speech beyond the limits of law (easily possible in most of the world), or shooting someone in cold blood, the agent, at least when it is a human being, does not take on the adjective illegal: there are no "illegal drivers" (or even "illegal speeders"), "illegal authors," or "illegal killers" on Wikipedia.


Grammar is defined by common use. The term "undocumented immigrant" is less commonly used by mainstream media (see the AP Stylebook above), and it is not the primary term used by the United States federal government. "Illegal immigrant" is more widespread. Other English-speaking countries tend to use "asylum seeker," a more specific term that is usually inaccurate in the U.S. context.

Where the illegality of the activity is not in question the word "illegal" is usually omitted. Immigration is or can be a legal activity just as illegal immigration describes a real activity--hence the need for the adjective--illegal.


An obvious reading suggests that the term "illegal immigrant" refers to a person who is a) an immigrant b) illegal. Illegal is an adjective usually applied to acts, not people, and anything that is considered "illegal" is usually considered an activity to be stamped out. To say that people are illegal suggests that they are outside the bounds of society and are excluded from ethical consideration, and is therefore dehumanizing or even eliminationist. That suggestion ought to be avoided, even if it is unintended. Many people are likely to be hurt or offended by the use of the term, whether or not offense or hurt is intended. Habitual use of a suggestive term may also have subconscious effects on thought processes, even if the suggestion is consciously rejected.


To say that people do illegal acts, i.e. immigrate in this case, implies nothing about their humanity. It is their activity that is illegal and could/should be subject to legal sanctions. While some believe the term illegal refers to acts and not people, the term is often applied to objects and people, such as the term illegal substance used to refer to items which are illegal to have on one's possession. The pecularity of the grammar would not suggest to a reasonable reader that the "illegal immigrants" are themselves illegal people, and Wikipedia cannot prevent misinterpretations by unreasonable readers.

Option 2: Where compromises are not possible, use "illegal immigrant"

Where avoiding the use of an adjectival description for people who enter or reside in a country without legal authorization is not possible, the term "illegal immigrant" should be preferred, for several reasons. Rival controversial terms should be used only in direct quotation.

Common use

"Illegal immigrant" is the most commonly used term on the internet, in news articles, and in United States legal documents, at least as determined by Google searches. Searching for "illegal immigrants" yields 18.6 million results, while searching for "undocumented immigrants" yields only 1.78 million. The naming conventions policy tells us:

Article naming should give priority to what the majority of English speakers would most easily recognize, with a reasonable minimum of ambiguity, while at the same time making linking to those articles easy and second nature.

The above policy is intended for article names, rather than terminology within articles. Nevertheless, much of its rationale still applies. "Illegal immigrant" is likely to be a more common search term, and although internal Wikipedia searches rely primarily on article titles, external Web searches rely equally on terminology within articles.


However, the subpolicy on common names tells us:

Some terms are in common usage but are commonly regarded as offensive to large groups of people (Mormon Church, for example). In those cases use widely known alternatives (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints).

"Illegal immigrant" is regarded by some as dehumanizing to immigrants who have entered the country illegally and/or offensive to Latinos. "Undocumented immigrant" is also common on the internet, in news articles, and in United States legal documents.

Moreover, Google is likely to be biased against viewpoints more likely to be held by immigrants and Latinos, who tend statistically to be poorer and are therefore less likely to have internet access. The Google test is unreliable.

Avoid euphemisms

The alternate term "undocumented immigrant" avoids explicit mention of the fact that the people who it describes have committed an illegal act. It is a euphemism which fails to precisely characterize the legal status of immigrants without documents in order to make their actions sound more acceptable.


The term "illegal immigrant" is just as imprecise. Living in the United States without citizenship or a visa violates the law, but is not treated like most illegal behaviors. It is a civil offense, not a criminal offense, under federal law. It is enforced and adjudicated not by the normal criminal justice system but by separate agencies. Many jurisdictions actually forbid police to ask about immigration status.[7]

However, tax cheats are treated by a separate court system as well, the United States Tax Court and the Internal Revenue Service. Similar to unintentional violation of immigration law, unintentional violation of tax law is subject to only a fine. These individuals are also called "tax evaders", there is no euphemism for them simply because they are in a different court system.

Moreover, "undocumented immigrant" parallels other terms like "jaywalker" and "drug dealer" in mentioning legality only by implication. If the former is a euphemism, so are the latter.

Option 3: Where compromises are not possible, use "unauthorized immigrant"

Where avoiding the use of an adjectival description for people who enter or reside in a country without legal authorization is not possible, the term "unauthorized immigrant" should be preferred, for several reasons. Rival controversial terms should be used only in direct quotation.


The term "unauthorized immigrant" has little history and therefore little political charge. Unlike all other terms available, it offends neither those who support citizenship for immigrants without legal authorization nor those who support tightened immigration laws. Whether or not it is inherently more neutral, in practice it is less controversial.


The term "unauthorized immigrant" is uncontroversial precisely because it is a neologism. Wikipedia has an "avoid neologisms" policy:

Generally speaking, neologisms should be avoided in articles because they may not be well understood, may not be clearly definable, and may even have different meanings to different people. Determining which meaning is the true meaning is original research — we don't do that here at Wikipedia. Articles that use neologisms should be edited to ensure they conform with the core Wikipedia policies: no original research and verifiability.

The rationale may be weaker for avoiding "unauthorized immigrant" than for avoiding other neologisms, because it is defined and defended by reputable sources and it seems to have a clear meaning, but the policy remains.

Moreover, the term remains rare. A Google search for "unauthorized immigrants" returns 282,000 results, versus 1,330,000 for "undocumented immigrants," which is in turn less common than "illegal immigrants."


The term "unauthorized immigrant" is the most precise available. It describes the specific illegal action committed without the implication that the responsible person is illegal, unlike "illegal immigrant". It excludes immigrants with forged or expired documents, unlike "undocumented immigrant."


Option 4: Only be as accurate when needed, not inflamatory

If the person is not a citizen of the nation, he is an alien. Immigrants are people here who came from somewhere else and encompasses both U.S. citizens who were born abroad and sometimes, in public TV shows saluting the immigrant experience say of Greek-Americans, natural born citizens of ethnic origin; just like the way Germans do.

If he has the right to remain and naturalize he is a resident alien or colloquially a green card holder. He he has overstayed his visa he is not necessarily illegal. The problem is the word illegal being applied willy-nilly. A term like non-citizen alien is redundant. The term alien may also refer to ET, so the term noncitizen human may be the best term.


The problem is not with the word illegal, but with the word alien. Because the word alien is usually used to describe that which is otherwordly or nonhuman, it is derogatory to apply the term to immigrants. Furthermore, alien is a polarizing word, since it is most often used by those who support harsher restrictions on immigration. Immigrants are not aliens, but are people with a country of origin other than the one they are entering or which they currently inhabit. Whatever terminology is accepted for use in Wikipedia, alien should not be part of it.

Option 5: Where compromises are not possible, use illegal alien

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services uses the term illegal alien. Their official glossary defines the term illegal alien in the following document,

making the term illegal alien technically correct.

This term is not widely used or understood outside of North America. [citation needed]

Seperate entries could be created for different countries. There may be only a few countries having debates on immigration, so excluding terminology in such a case would be unreasonable.
I don't believe that is necessary, or even possible, to find a term which is globally acceptable. Immigration and related politics are national issues, and we should allow for discussions of immigration which take place within national contexts. Therefore, I do not see a problem with having an immigration page in Wikipedia which covers American issues, and other pages which cover the issues of those countries, using the language appropriate for each country.
Perhaps the thing to do is have a lead page with the title "immigration", which contains nothing but links to other pages which are dedicated to individual countries. The lead page would not be edittable, but links to new pages would automatically appear when someone creates a new page with the word "immigration" in the title. Something like a Project Page may work here.

About The Author

Wikipedia a multilingual, web-based, free content encyclopedia project. Wikipedia is written collaboratively by volunteers from all around the world. Since its creation in 2001, Wikipedia has grown rapidly into one of the largest reference Web sites.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.