Sharam Kohan

Words Matter: No Human Being is Illegal

Most conversations about immigration include someone referring to others as “illegal.” The US government officially refers to certain people as “illegal aliens.”[1] Many migrants are accused of being in or entering the US “illegally.” Regardless of whether or not a person has committed a crime in entering the US without authorization, that person is not illegal. A person cannot be illegal. While certain actions may be criminal, or illegal, people cannot be illegal. Although, in the US, it is a federal crime to enter the country without inspection, it is not a crime to be present within the country without authorization.[2] Thus, a person living in the US without status, or without a valid visa, is not committing a crime.

Referring to other people as illegal is grammatically incorrect. Otto Santa Ana, a linguist and professor in UCLA’s Department of Chicana/o Studies explains “’[w]e don’t call pedestrians who cross in the middle of the street illegal pedestrians’… ‘A kid who skips school to go to Disneyland is not an illegal student. And yet that’s a sort of parallel.’”[3] There are many linguists who argue against using the phrase “illegal immigrant” because it is neither “‘accurate nor neutral’” and other people who break laws are not referred to as “illegal.”[4] Such language is dehumanizing and used to make it easier to justify harmful and dangerous policies against a group of people. The phrase “illegal immigrant” was not popularly used until World War II when it was used to describe Jewish refugees who fled to Palestine without authorization.[5] Elie Wiesel, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor, once said, “know that no human being is illegal. That is a contradiction in terms. Human beings can be beautiful or more beautiful, they can be fat or skinny, they can be right or wrong, but illegal? How can a human being be illegal?[6]

Although a migrant may have committed a crime in entering the US without inspection or authorization, “illegal alien” is not the proper way to describe them because “illegal alien” was not a legal term until it was used by the Court in Arizona v. United States.[7] In the Immigration and Nationality Act, an “alien” is someone who is neither a citizen nor a national of the United States.[8] The phrase “illegal alien” is not terminology used in the Act. In 2018, only months ago, the Justice Department instructed US attorney offices to refer to undocumented immigrants as “illegal aliens.”[9] The phrase has been popularized in the US to describe both documented and undocumented immigrants due to a misconception that undocumented immigrants, by virtue of existing, violate criminal law. Again, being present in the United States without a valid visa is not a violation of criminal law. Immigration attorney Shahid Haque-Hausrath writes:

the term [illegal alien] is imprecise and is used to encompass individuals who are in the United States under vastly different circumstances. Some individuals are brought here against their will, such as victims of human trafficking. Others come here on valid visas but subsequently fall out of status. For instance, many victims of domestic violence have legal status that depends on the continued sponsorship of their abuser. Some individuals are here under ‘temporary protected status’ because of strife in their home country, but fall out of status when our government removes their protected status. To blanket all immigrants who are out of status as being ‘illegals’ is overly simplistic.[10]

Continued… here (University of Cincinnati – The Immigration & Human Rights Law Review (IHRLR))