asian little girl sad hand hold jail at Railroad,railway station

In a recent post, Robert Stribley explains Americans have derived various ways to describe those who immigrate illegally to the United States — and the ways different ways reflect our personal biases and beliefs.

Dissatisfied with the limited selection of available terminology, Stribley concludes using “unauthorized” is preferred to using “illegal” or “undocumented,” since it contains “the possibility of reparation and atonement” and allows “for a sensible reaction proportional to the offense.  Accordingly, he opts for “unauthorized immigrant.”

Stribley is correct.  Words matter.

And how we choose to define – setting the parameters on their meanings – matters greatly.

All immigration lawyers know that. We’re wordsmiths, aren’t we?

So whether we term an immigrant who crosses the border into the United States without permission an “undocumented immigrant”, an  “unauthorized immigrant”, an “illegal immigrant”, or – yuck – an “illegal” makes a difference . . .

. . .  a difference in the public perception of that person who is being labelled.

As I noted in The Battle To Correct False Labels About Immigrants, the intent behind calling an immigrant who avoided inspection and authorization upon entry an “illegal immigrant” or “illegal” is fairly clear.

It’s one step away from implying they’re criminals.

Those who engage in such terminology know this is not true.

Besides, some of those deemed illegal immigrants are persons who entered legally.  They entered with visas and were inspected at the border entry point.  They did not leave when their visas expired.  They’re known as visa overstays.

They violated the law, but they’re not portrayed as criminals, per se.

They constitute, at minimum, 40% of the “llegals” population.

Like those who overstay, undocumented immigrants are not criminals.  Immigration law is part of our civil system of justice – not part of our criminal law system.

In fact, based on my experience as an immigration lawyer, I have encountered many, many immigrants who are undocumented and unauthorized – yet are merely one step away from obtaining lawful status.

But if immigrant advocates are honest with themselves, even the terms “undocumented immigrant” and “unauthorized immigrant” are blasé.

So I have a suggestion to make.

Perhaps “Illegal entrant” would serve the dual purpose of pointing that a person broke the law in entering without inspection, without implying that the person, “the immigrant”, is illegal just because they’re an immigrant.

In other words, using a middle-of-the-road definition, the public might grasp that an entrant who entered without permission has broken the law but may still earn the right to legal residency – similar to an overstay – without proclaiming some grand criminal wrong has been committed and suggesting winning a green card is not tantamount to amnesty having been granted.

Such understanding would go a long way, over time, to bringing the nation to a consensus on sensible and rational immigration reform.


  1. For information regarding Immigrant Family Visa, Permanent Residence, and Citizenship Services
  2. The Way We Speak About Unauthorized Immigrants Matters, October 19, 2016, The Huffington Post
  3. The original version of this article was posted at Scoop.It



If you family visa or green card assistance . . .
the Immigration Law Offices of Carlos Batara is here to help you.

CALL (800) 287-1180