How Immigration Terminology Shapes the Debate

Are non-US citizens residing illegally in our country ‘undocumented immigrants?’ Are they ‘dreamers?’ Those are terms coined by the open-borders crowd in an effort to gain public sympathy for the idea of ‘legalization,” which, of course, is their buzzword for amnesty. Unfortunately, they have succeeded in getting the news and social media to use their terminology through the suasion of political correctness.

Confusion over the terminology of both legal and illegal migration to the U.S. was the topic of an article in the Washington Post by David Nakamura on January 22, “’Alien or ‘dreamer’? Foes linguistic rift complicates debate on immigration’” But the article perpetuated confusion over terminology while ostensibly explaining the issue. It described the rift as a battle between restictionists and accommodationists trying to sway public opinion. That is valid, but what the writer and his editor failed to explain or deliberately omitted is the fact that the rift in terminology is due largely to a one-sided effort by the accommodationists. The terms ‘alien’ and ‘illegal alien’ are age-old terms codified in law and jurisprudence.

Similarly, the term ‘dreamer’ is a term cut from whole cloth to hide the fact that most of those illegal aliens differ in no way from the status from their illegal alien parent(s). The fact that some were smuggled into the country by a parent or a professional smuggler does not give them any claim to special treatment despite the illegal political act of the Obama administration granting them access to work permits and temporary protection from deportation.

Logically, an immigrant is a person who arrived in the U.S. with an immigrant visa or converted while in the country to legal permanent residence from nonimmigrant status. All other foreign residents are nonimmigrants residing either legally or illegally. So, even the term ‘illegal immigrant’ is misleading. Correct terminology should be’ illegal alien’ or ‘illegal nonimmigrant’.

About Author


Jack, who joined FAIR’s National Board of Advisors in 2017, is a retired U.S. diplomat with consular experience. He has testified before the U.S. Congress, U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform and has authored studies of immigration issues. His national and international print, TV, and talk radio experience is extensive (including in Spanish).

1 Comment

  1. avatar

    A couple years ago when the acceptable term went from illegal alien to “undocumented Immigrant” the prediction was that illegal advocates and the media would just start using the term immigrant to describe any of them no matter their status. That’s the standard now.

    The left and Hollywood are congratulating themselves on the movie The Post, which outlines the story behind the release of the “Pentagon Papers”, which revealed the true story of our involvement in Viet Nam. Now that same thing is called Russian interference in our election system.

    No matter who released the Wikeleaks documents, no one has denied they are real, and what they showed is that the DNC rigged the primaries for Hillary and CNN passed debate questions to her campaign. They also showed a speech she tried to keep secret, when she told a group of South American bankers behind closed doors that she favored “open borders”. Why were we not entitled to know that?