A respected newspaper reporter advised me today that journalists use the term undocumented immigrant instead of illegal alien to refer to someone living in the country illegally simply because a person can not be illegal. However, most deem the term undocumented immigrant to be merely an euphemism. According to his rationale "[a] person can’t, under [by] the definition, be illegal. Only an object or action can be described as such." This surprised me especially because the term "illegal alien" so widely used in the press and even by the Internal Revenue Service. What is the appropriate English term for a someone living in the country illegally?

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    It feels like this is a question about politics, not language.
    – cobaltduck
    Feb 14, 2017 at 20:13
  • There has recently been a political effort in the United States to make the term "illegal immigrant" unacceptable in polite civil discourse. Though it is still an active area of controversy, with a fair number of "die-hards" that have sworn on principle to never stop using the term, it should be noted that on the whole the campaign has been largely effective in its aims, with many mainstream journalists now preferring the "undocumented" modifier. Feb 14, 2017 at 20:22

2 Answers 2


Illegal immigrant is a correct expression, the issue apprears to be one of legal definition especially in the United States:

  • noun [ C ] UK ​ /ɪˌliː.ɡəl ˈɪm.ɪ.ɡrənt/ US ​ /ɪˌliː.ɡəl ˈɪm.ɪ.ɡrənt/ us also illegal alien: ​
    • someone who lives or works in another country when they do not have the legal right to do this

Ngram: illegal immigrant, illegal alien, undocumented immigrant.

I agree that "undocumented immigrant" sounds like an euphemism for "illegal immigrant" which still is the more common expression.

Undocumented (AmE):

  • not having any documents to prove that someone or something is legal: undocumented immigrants/aliens/workers'

(Cambridge Dictionary)

There is a debate in the US about the usage of the term illegal referring to immigrants:

Immigration Debate: The Problem with the Word Illegal:

  • describing an immigrant as illegal is legally inaccurate. Being in the U.S. without proper documents is a civil offense, not a criminal one. (Underscoring this reality, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority opinion on SB 1070, Arizona’s controversial immigration law: “As a general rule, it is not a crime for a movable alien to remain in the United States.”)

  • In a country that believes in due process of the law, calling an immigrant illegal is akin to calling a defendant awaiting trial a criminal. The term illegal is also imprecise. For many undocumented people — there are 11 million in the U.S. and most have immediate family members who are American citizens, either by birth or naturalization — their immigration status is fluid and, depending on individual circumstances, can be adjusted.


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    These are helpful points to bring up, but as "Illegal" can refer to violations of civil law, I'm not sure the "legally inaccurate" is quite correct. I've asked at law.stackexchange.com/questions/37567/… for any adjectives which do apply to crossing borders contrary to administrative/civil law. Feb 25, 2019 at 0:39
  • And as a correction--crossing borders without approval is contrary to criminal law; it is apparently just that but some "illegal immigrants" might not have crossed illegally (by overstaying a legitimate visa) or by a statute of limitations on their initial crime having passed. It seems the court ruling was in reference to remaining in the United States--not those who crossed illegally (within the last 5 years). Feb 25, 2019 at 12:32

The difference between undocumented immigrant and illegal immigrant extends to other circumstances.

For example, when people overstay a tourist visa, they did not immigrate illegally and are not illegal immigrants. When they earn money by working while on a student visa, they did not immigrate illegally and are not illegal immigrants.

Center for Migration Studies :

"the total undocumented population in the United States has declined gradually over the past few years ... 482,781 “Suspected In-Country Overstays" ... individuals who remained in the United States beyond their period of admission ..."

  • If you're gonna bring up a couple rare cases of the phrase, you can't leave out the cases that make up 98% of the usage. Very very rarely will someone use "illegal immigrant" to describe someone overstaying their visa, despite it technically being accurate. They are an immigrant, and they are illegally staying in the country. Can you site an example of someone using it in this manner?
    – Hank
    Feb 14, 2017 at 20:28
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    "For example, when people overstay a tourist visa, they did not immigrate illegally and are not illegal immigrants." I think many would argue they immigrated by overstaying, and the manner by which they immigrated (by overstaying) is illegal; thus they immigrated illegally.
    – user102008
    Jun 4, 2017 at 22:51
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    @user102008 indeed, as I suspect you know, one whose nonimmigrant status in the US has lapsed is an immigrant under the statutory definition of immigrant found at 8 USC 1101(a)(15).
    – phoog
    Feb 26, 2019 at 0:26

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