Illegal Aliens and Illegal Immigrants
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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