Illegal Aliens and Illegal Immigrants

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A reader asks for a discussion of

the media’s use of “illegal alien” to mean “illegal immigrant.”

The Associated Press Stylebook recommends the phrase “illegal immigrant” in preference to “illegal alien.”

The words alien and immigrant are not exactly interchangeable, but “immigrant” is perceived as having a more positive connotation than ”alien.”

An immigrant is a person who moves from one country to settle in another.

An immigrant may or may not be a citizen. An alien is definitely not a citizen.

The word alien entered English from Old French in the fourteenth century. As an adjective it meant “strange, foreign.” As a noun it meant “foreigner.” It’s from Latin alienus, “of or belonging to another.”

As a modern legal term, the word alien refers to a person who is in a country, but not a resident of that country.

There are two types of of alien: legal and illegal.

A legal alien is a person who is in a country temporarily as a student or a tourist, or who has been granted permission to live in the country permanently without being a citizen. The latter kind of alien is called a resident alien.

An illegal alien is present in a country without the country’s authorization. If the person intends harm, the term enemy alien may apply.

The word immigrant is from the Latin verb imigrare “to remove, go into, move in.” It’s related to the word migration. An immigrant is a person who leaves one country to settle in another. Like aliens, immigrants are of two kinds: legal and illegal.

The use of the word alien to refer to a foreigner in the United States is nothing new. One of the many U.S. laws enacted to control immigration between 1790 and the present is one called The Alien Contract Labor Law of 1885.

The use of the word alien to mean “creature from another planet” had its origin in science-fiction writing and became current in the 1950s.

A popular euphemism for illegal alien or illegal immigrant is “undocumented worker.” A negative term sometimes seen is “illegal.” The AP Stylebook rejects both terms.

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15 thoughts on “Illegal Aliens and Illegal Immigrants”

  1. How about the difference between immigrant and emigrant? I remember using both terms when I was in school and if I remember correctly, they have different meanings and are not interchangeable. Any thoughts?

  2. Jennifer,
    The immigrant is going into a country.
    An emigrant is leaving a country.

    My grandmother emigrated from Germany when she was 19.
    She immigrated to the United States.

  3. Immigrant connotes the idea that the government of the target country is aware
    that the immigrant is present.

    Alien properly connotes the idea that the government of the target country is
    not aware that the alien is present.

    In that case, “illegal alien” is most definitely the proper term to
    use to describe those who have sneaked into our country.

    The difference between an “illegal immigrant” and an “illegal
    alien” is the difference between a visiting salesman entering your house and overstaying his invitation and a burglar who has entered, and you don’t even
    know it.

  4. Jennifer: immigrant is a contraction of “in-migrant” (you can’t say “inm” very easily, so the “n” sound changes to “m”) — that is someone going into a country; an emigrant (“e-” from “ex-“, meaning “out of”) is the opposite: someone leaving.

  5. It feels like ‘illegal alien’ is a term used mainly in the USA or North America. It’s not a term you hear used in Europe at all. In the UK, anyone who is in the country who doesn’t have the legal right to be there, either with or without the government’s knowledge, is an ‘illegal immigrant’. There is a subset of these people that have applied for political asylum and these are referred to as ‘asylum seekers’ while their cases are being considered.

  6. I know this is discussing th language used, not the media.

    However, this talk of illegal alliens and illegal immigrants, it is used in the recent film District 9. The aliens there are persecuted in the african nation, as illegal immigrants are persecuted in western civillisations.

    IF this has any relevance what so ever 😀

  7. This term is very complicated because you have the confluence of vocabulary from the social sciences to describe social phenomena and U.S. legal terminology which are not commensurate with each other. If we were to use just legalese, there could not be an “illegal immigrant”, as “immigrants” in the law constitute a narrow subset of those who come to the U.S. with authorization and even a smaller subset of those who immigrate in the socio-political sense . “Illegal alien” on the other hand constitutes a very small subset of the individuals the media is usually talking about (there are only about 10k “illegal aliens” in the U.S. each year which is significantly less than the number of individuals news reports discuss). So the term you use should be based on the discipline you are in.

  8. In Australia these words would not be acceptable because of the negative connotations. Those who use them would risk being called a “racist”.

    The currently politically correct term is “asylum seekers” which is applied universally.

  9. The AP style guidelines are wrong in assuming some sort of neutrality to the term illegal immigrant. It is a pejorative term criticized by National Association of Hispanic Journalists, Asian American Journalists Association, Native American Journalists Association and National Association of Black Journalists. All of them recommend the use of “undocumented immigrant.” The AP has refused to change their practices despite repeated complains by these associations of journalists and in this refusal the AP shows an ongoing commitment to the preferential treatment of the view’s of some white journalists and media professionals to the detriment and exclusion of the rest of the news community. Shame on them.

  10. So according to the definitions as listed, a Mexican citizen crossing the border into the United States in violation of the law who is not a United States citizen and staying for an extended time should be called an illegal aliens. The associated Press style book seems to be trying to effect a political agenda rather than express the true situation. I notice the associated press has no problem using harsh terminology against evangelicals and misrepresenting and even redefining them. I use this only as an example of their misanthropic view.

  11. The difference between the two terms is one of legality. An Illegal Alien is a person who does not have legal status in said country. A legal immigrant has met the requirements and received a visa or permission to remain in the state. Therefore, there is no such thing as an “illegal immigrant”. Simple. Arguably, the use of the term ‘illegal immigrant’ is used to soften the blow by those uncomfortable with using ‘illegal alien’; hence, such a person is showing sympathy for the plight of the foreigner.
    BA History, MS Education

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