The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The long struggle over what to call ‘undocumented immigrants’ or, as Trump said in his order, ‘illegal aliens’

Trump told police chiefs to report "who the illegal immigrant gang members're local. You know the illegals, you know them by their first name." (Video: The Washington Post)
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As a candidate and now as president, Donald Trump has made copious use of the term “illegal” to describe people who enter the United States without the proper paperwork or stay here longer than their papers allow.

On the campaign trail, he regularly blustered about “illegal aliens.” As president-elect, he scolded Germany about taking in “all these illegals” from the Middle East. Now in the White House, his controversial travel ban orders federal agencies to swiftly send “illegal aliens” back to their home countries.

Trump deployed the term again on Wednesday, telling a conference of police chiefs to turn “illegal immigrant gang members” over to federal authorities. “You know the illegals,” he said.

Language like that makes immigrant advocates cringe. In recent years, there has been a push to change the vocabulary surrounding immigration to avoid the term “illegal.” The main idea is that it’s not a crime for a noncitizen to stay in the country without authorization, but a civil offense. Advocates frequently invoke the quote “no human being is illegal” from Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. They propose using “undocumented” or “unauthorized” instead.

The effort has gained steam. In 2013, the Associated Press dropped “illegal immigrant” from its stylebook, saying “illegal” should be used to describe actions, not people. Other publications followed suit, including USA Today. In a similar move, California Gov. Jerry Brown in 2015 scrubbed “alien” from the state’s labor code. More recently, the Library of Congress announced in March 2016 that it would seek to remove “illegal alien” from its subject headings.

(The Washington Post’s stylebook says “illegal immigrant” is accurate and acceptable, but notes that some find it offensive. The Post does not refer to people as “illegal aliens” or “illegals,” per its guidelines.)

It comes as zero surprise that a man defined by his contempt for political correctness wouldn’t use a more polite term to describe the people he has vowed to deport en masse. Indeed, Trump may very well use terms such as “illegals” deliberately to needle his opponents.

It wouldn’t have gotten him in any trouble in 1970.

At the time, the offending word was “wetback.” For decades, it was used to describe Mexicans living in the United States, and it wasn’t unusual to see it in newspaper articles and popular literature. In 1954, the U.S. government even titled a mass deportation effort “Operation Wetback.” By the 1960s, it was increasingly regarded as an ethnic slur, but major publications were still using it in stories and headlines.

In 1970, after the Los Angeles Times ran an editorial using the term “wetback,” a group of Chicano law students from UCLA proposed an alternative, as KPCC has reported.

“We are still faced with insensitive and racist terms, such as wetback, to refer to Mexican nationals who have entered the country illegally,” the students wrote in a letter to the editor. “We are now educating the public to use terms like illegal aliens or illegal entrants.”

It’s not clear how successful the students were in that particular case. But over the next 20 years, “illegal alien,” or some variation of it, became commonplace, according to University of Berkeley sociologist Edwin Ackerman, who has studied the term’s use in media. Ackerman said the change was spurred by the civil rights movement’s attempts to make racist language less acceptable.

“That’s partly why the language of illegality starts to pick up,” he told NPR in 2015, “because it has this supposed neutrality to it.”

By the 1990s, however, “illegal alien” had fallen out of favor. As Ackerman told NPR, “It allows you to speak of a certain group of people, and everybody knows what particular group of people that is, without having to recourse to any sort of racist language.”

In the past decade, debate over the use of “illegal alien” has played out in government. Federal agencies make wide use of the term. So do federal courts. The phrase has appeared in numerous Supreme Court decisions, though there’s no requirement that jurists use it in immigration cases.

Some judges and legal scholars have argued in favor of “illegal alien.” An appeals court decision on one of President Barack Obama’s immigration executive actions defended the term, citing a popular legal dictionary that rejected alternatives such as “undocumented immigrant” as “needless euphemisms” and “near-gobbledygook.” Because “undocumented” suggests “unaccounted for,” the meaning could be obscured, reads the passage in the Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage. “Illegal alien is not an opprobrious epithet: it describes one present in a country in violation of the immigration laws,” the passage says.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor disagrees. In 2009, she became the first judge on the high court to opt for the term “undocumented immigrant” in an opinion, as Adam Liptak of the New York Times noted. She explained her perspective on the issue in later interviews, saying “illegal alien” creates the perception “that immigrants are all criminals and criminals in a negative sense of drug addicts, thieves, and murderers.”

A 2012 immigration decision in the Supreme Court drew praise from advocates for omitting “illegal immigrants” and “illegal aliens” altogether, except when quoting other sources. “As a general rule,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy noted in the majority opinion, “it is not a crime for a removable alien to remain present in the United States.” CNN contributor Charles Garcia said the court’s “nonjudgmental” language reflected a more “humanistic approach” to reforming U.S. immigration policy.

With an epic legal challenge to Trump’s travel ban underway, the high court will again have the opportunity to parse the language of illegality. Given its recent rulings, the court is likely to choose its words carefully.

The president, meanwhile, has made his preference clear.