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?
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.
- not having any documents to prove that someone or something is legal: undocumented immigrants/aliens/workers'
There is a debate in the US about the usage of the term illegal referring to immigrants:
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.
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.
"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 ..."