Open Phones: Immigration Terminology

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The terms we use when we talk about immigration are loaded and contentious. We want you to propose new language. Avoiding terms such as "undocumented" or "illegal," how would you describe immigrants living in this country?

Comments [74]

Lee Bhattacharji from Manhattan

Re: new term for illegal immigrants:

Apr. 30 2010 01:31 PM
maren from chicago IL

When I fill out a job application, I am asked if I am I am a legal resident of the US, authorized to work...
Would not the designation of non-legal resident be apropos? It does not dictated the working status (non-authorized), it's clinical...
Just a thought..

Apr. 30 2010 11:35 AM
eddiel from United States

I know I'm late to this blog.. but I recommend calling them "Seekers" to describe why they have come here. For economic gain, education, and freedom.

Apr. 29 2010 02:27 PM

I agree with "economic refugee." They are coming here because there is no work for them at home. This is to a large extent a problem created by the US government caving in to corporate interests with programs like NAFTA, Brady bonds, agricultural subsidies to US corn farmers, etc.. These programs have contributed significantly to the destruction of Mexican industry and agriculture, forcing Mexican workers and farmers to cross the border to find work, or forcing them into the one remaining healthy industry, illegal drugs.

Border fences, the war on drugs, and Arizona-style laws only deal with the symptoms, and will not solve the problem. The US must rationalize its trade policies if the Mexican economy is to improve and create jobs at home. Unfortunately, US corporations and agribusiness will never allow this to happen, and they will have strong public support because such changes will be seen as wasteful foreign aid, hurting American business, etc.

Apr. 29 2010 02:17 PM
Phil Henshaw from uptown

Scientific terms for social phenomena often expose moral quandaries that people have not grappled with. In ecological terms, though, waves of immigrants that disrupt the invaded culture are invasive species. The demographics of the several cultures of the world now multiplying rapidly to upset the cultural balance of their adopted homes make it clear that the term has some validity, even if the science offers little help for what is right to do.

Would it be unthinkable for employers be responsible for knowing who they employ? It's so bizarre we put the onus on everyone involved BUT the people who pay the illegals to come here. The penalty could be variable, like not having the wages paid illegal aliens tax deductible, or whatever the politics will bear. Most of the problem is caused by employers.

Apr. 29 2010 01:37 PM
anonymous from nyc

I am an illegal immigrant myself and I think there is already a neutral term to describe us. Having struggled through the maze of the immigration system in the US, I know that internally the government agencies refer to us as "non-resident aliens" or sometimes "non-resident immigrants." That seems perfectly adequate, but I myself prefer the term aspiring American.

Apr. 29 2010 12:26 PM

Undocumented citizens?

Apr. 29 2010 12:22 PM

Illegal immigrant is code word for "mexican" among some groups.

Apr. 29 2010 12:20 PM

if you wish but i'm not the one hiring them

Apr. 29 2010 12:15 PM
neil from New Jersey

No new shorthand term, it will be abused and misinterpreted. Its human nature, that's what we do.

Prolonged, inconclusive dialogue or quick ignorant certainty? Those personal preferences are underlying many public policy issues today.

Apr. 29 2010 12:08 PM
Nancy from Brooklyn

Hi Folks,

I wasn't able to find this term before your broadcast ended this morning, but I looked up what George Lakoff suggested as a good alternative term for 'illegal immigrants' - he proposed we call such people "economic refugees", which I think is a great term; it's true, compassionate and focuses the debate around this issue on the root cause.

Apr. 29 2010 12:07 PM
Jack Jackson from Central New Jersey

Illegal immigrants is not a negative term. Most of our visitors are overstaying validly obtained visas, not crossing the Rio in the dead of night.
It does (falsely) give the impression that the persons mere presence in the country without a green card (or equivalent) is illegal. That is false. There is no statute broken by their being in the country without permission.

Shorthanding the entire phrase to 'Illegals' IS bigoted as it extends one attribute to the entire person and, for some, to the entire ethnic group...depending upon how deep your own racialism flows.

Apr. 29 2010 12:05 PM
peter from woodside

Fine the employers 100,000 USD per illegal and usually severely underpaid employee.

Sue employers for back wages and unpaid taxes.

No border fence needed.

No illegal employment = more tax money for federal and local government and much much less illegal immigration.

Problem solved.

Then no free lunch. Illegals must get in line with the those seeking legal immigration after proving they have paid all back taxes.

Lastly no more anchor babies.

Apr. 29 2010 12:04 PM
Kate from New York

How about "Reserve Resident"
(our reserve of potential citizens)

Apr. 29 2010 12:04 PM
arlo from NYC

Let's just deal with the basic observation, that the law is being violated, without presuming the motivation or intent. At the same time let's not use terminology that dehumanizes or stereotypes the violator. For example, "immigration violator" or "immigration infringer". If you want to be more general and not presume that the person is actual immigrating, but is in the country for a short period without the intention to stay for long, how about "border violator" or "border infringer". I'm sure people might object, but if you do ask if you are really being neutral.

Apr. 29 2010 12:03 PM
Voter from Brooklyn

Why not just go back to Antebellum days and call them chattel, that’s what my great-great grandparents were.

Apr. 29 2010 12:03 PM

Jew, Italian, Greek, Scottish, Hungarian, Nigerian, Jamaican...get it? Where ya from and are here without proper documentation.

Apr. 29 2010 12:01 PM

What about "Visa Overstay"

Apr. 29 2010 12:00 PM
Janie Heath from Manhattan

I think illegal or unauthorized workers and/or residents would be better. Let's keep the focus on the the illegal ACT and not the whole person.

Apr. 29 2010 11:59 AM
peter from woodside


Apr. 29 2010 11:58 AM
Go Home Now

I'm a liberal guy, live and let live. But I'm sticking with the term "illegal immigrants" because it annoys all of the squishy, biased journalists and activists who are pushing terms like "undocumented residents."

Apr. 29 2010 11:58 AM
Maggie from ny

What about "potential taxpayer"?
For the police - "questionable visitors"?

Apr. 29 2010 11:58 AM
Jim from NJ


this term demonstrates not only the explotation of these people but, also how is devaules the citizenship of everyone and how it is in everyone's interest to solve this issue. What does it mean to be a citizen? what is it's vaule.

Apr. 29 2010 11:58 AM
Voter from Brooklyn

I have a new word for the opening monolog of this segment: Word Salad.
What was that ramble of could be this could be that obfuscate obfuscate obfuscate apples to oranges mixed metaphors?

Apr. 29 2010 11:58 AM

Hard workers.. in most cases they are!

Apr. 29 2010 11:57 AM
Mike from Inwood

'Illegal immigrant' is descriptive, accurate and neutral. To suggest that it's not is just an attempt by the people who advocate open borders to reframe the argument. U fortunately, Lehrer is far from neutral and this show is only his latest attempt to further his personal agenda. I did like 'uninvited guests' though.

Apr. 29 2010 11:57 AM
Kelly from UES


Apr. 29 2010 11:56 AM
Nick from Inwood

Sure, I've got a term for unauthorized immigrants - Great-Granddad!

Apr. 29 2010 11:55 AM
Bob from NYC

To everyone who says they are "future citizens". You do realize that most of the illegal immigrants don't want to become US citizens, but rather make money and return home, right?

Apr. 29 2010 11:55 AM


After all, aren't Jews who moved into the occupied West Bank called "settlers." After all the whole Southwest was originally part of Mexico, so they are only coming back home.

Apr. 29 2010 11:55 AM
eric from park slope

how about "cross border workers." too much political terminology being thrown around.

Apr. 29 2010 11:55 AM
Jen from Manhattan

Foreign job-seekers

Apr. 29 2010 11:55 AM

How can you call them illegal immigrants?

Aren't they members of planet Earth too -- Earthlings? (This way Mexican and Asians mammals and birds can also be included).

Apr. 29 2010 11:55 AM

"foreign citizens"

Apr. 29 2010 11:55 AM
Jim from new orleans, la

economic refugees

Apr. 29 2010 11:55 AM
JP from NJ

So should we come up with a neutral term for anyone who willingly and knowingly breaks the law? Don’t get me wrong, I’d be running across that desert if I lived in Mexico. But really?

Apr. 29 2010 11:54 AM
Tom from Cooper Sq.

The neutral term should derive from the greek "Xeno". There are several subcategories

legals are ok... therefore XenOK
Questionables are... XenoQue
Illegals are non-authorized... XenoNa

The fine on XenoNa is the XenoNa penalty
The incarcerated ... Xenocarcerates
The special guest tax is Xenotax
The drug XenoNa is transgressive in a serious degree: XenoNa-T2 (second degree)

Apr. 29 2010 11:54 AM
Mark in Manhattan from Manhattan

I think the DNC would prefer to use the term "Undocumented Democrats" rather than "Illegal Immigrants." That's why any amnesty program will not be balanced by immigration enforcement, because every twenty years or so the "Undocumented Democrats" give a boost to the DNC.

Apr. 29 2010 11:53 AM

call them what they are:

cheap labor

cheap labor, whether in a chinese slave factory or the tomato pickers in florida or the guy who cuts the law of your mc mansion, make the American middle class possible

Apr. 29 2010 11:53 AM
Tink from NYC

Illegal Resident

Apr. 29 2010 11:53 AM
Carl from Lindenhurst NY

Uninvited Guests

Apr. 29 2010 11:53 AM
Alistair from midtown

How about huddled masses yearning to be free?

On the Gordon Brown gaffe, I was telling my British wife about this yesterday and I got to the "bigoted woman" part of the story her jaw dropped much as the woman PM Brown was talk to did. I guess the being labeled a bigot is a touchy issue for the Brits across generations.

Apr. 29 2010 11:53 AM
Derek from 42nd & Lex

Economic Refugee

Apr. 29 2010 11:51 AM
Voter from Brooklyn

He has a point Kate from Fort Greene.
If I moved to France, I’d learn French even though most younger citizens speak some English. If I moved to Japan, I’d learn some Japanese. If I moved to Germany I’d learn German. It is an affront, an insult of arrogance, to move to another culture and thumb your nose. It is no different than the prototypical “Ugly American.”

Apr. 29 2010 11:43 AM

Come on who are we fooling. Change the name and that will solve the issue right? No! I am a nice guy like most out here, but Brian it is what it is. I hate to say it, but this just silliness.

Apr. 29 2010 11:40 AM
Matthew from Florida, formerly from NJ

You state that the terms we use when we talk about immigration are loaded and contentious, but the real issue is that they are becoming politically incorrect, which unfortunately has happened to too many other perfectly descriptive terms in our language. I'm sorry, but people who snuck into this country without going through proper channels ARE "undocumented" and "illegal," and coming up with other more pleasant terminology will not change that. We should be dealing with ways to handle the flood of people (granting of asylum, guest worker visas, etc.), not wasting time trying to avoid offense by using precise and correct terminology.

Apr. 29 2010 11:35 AM
Jon from NYC

It's all too clear from the posts that the word "immigrant" is being used as double-speak to mean "mexican"...

Apr. 29 2010 11:32 AM
Voter from Brooklyn

Kidnappers are not “custody reapportioners”
Rapists are not “sexual victors”
Fraudsters are not “perception superiors”
Burglars are not “Robin Hoodites”
Tax cheats are not “Just smarter than everyone else”
Genocide is not “species fortification”
And despite what Conservatives say, selfish anarchists are not “patriots”

Illegal immigrants ARE illegal immigrants. When someone illegal immigrates to a country where which they are not a citizen and their immigration is undocumented they are in fact an illegal immigrant.

Why are we trying to rebrand everything in the English language. It’s nothing but semantic gamesmanship that obfuscate the crux of highly important issues. But if you really want the guiltless PC warm and fuzzies, how about W-E-L-C-O-M-E-D: West-born emigrating Latino campers oft missing exact documentation. (we all know this is about illegal Mexicans and not illegal Frenchmen or Britons)

Apr. 29 2010 11:30 AM
Kate from Fort Greene

Have you seen Alabama GOP Gov AD by Tim James? He says, "We speak English in Alabama. If you want to live here, Learn It."
Here is link...

Apr. 29 2010 11:27 AM
Chester Jenkins from Vinegar Hill, Bklyn

Oops. Posted in the wrong thread. Sorry. And was also snarky. REALLY snarky. Sorry again.

It's kinda hard, because you want something non-negative, so ILlegal and UNdocumented are out.

I like "Potential Citizens", as suggested by JC.

How about Resident Visitors?
Or Resident Immigrants?

I have been an undocumented alien for periods of my time here, between visas, but I always paid my taxes and otherwise contributed to the US economy, so the hate expressed by some people — I'm looking at you Calls'em As I Sees'em — towards my ilk is hurtful and terribly unfair.

Apr. 29 2010 11:25 AM
mexicant from INS Holding Facility

Running cacti, mexifornians, etc?

Apr. 29 2010 11:25 AM
JTB from Summit, NJ

non-legal residents

Apr. 29 2010 11:25 AM
Carla from Brooklyn

We should call them "Neighbors" or Refugees -

That is the only acceptable and human term. It is no secret that the U.S. finances inequality and poverty in countries like Mexico - with its foreign economic policies and its horrible 'free' trade system. We force immigrants to come to this country - we should protect AND apologize to them for having forced them out of their own countries - instead of treating them as the root of our problems.

Apr. 29 2010 11:24 AM
Dwight from Red Bank, NJ

How about - "Uninvited Guest Workers". Sort of politically neutral

Apr. 29 2010 11:23 AM

How about:
potential/possible citizens
unprocessed immigrants

And Calls'em As I Sees'em from here, there and everywhere:

Your list is not only inflammatory, it is untrue. Most people coming to this country (like, possibly your own forebears) want a better life and just want opportunities. They are not criminals.

We do need to do something about our borders both North and South because we have terrorism and a drug war to deal with. However reducing the issue to such incendiary (and highly politicized) terms is not helpful.

Apr. 29 2010 11:23 AM
Jeff from Hoboken

“Illegal immigrant” fits exactly and there is no need to change the label for politically correct reasons. These foreigners are not here legally and they, mostly, wish to settle her.

Apr. 29 2010 11:21 AM
Steve NJ

Why not call them what they really are? Refugees! These people are fleeing a war zone, (the war on drugs) just as the people in Iraq and Afganistan are. So What would the reaction of our government be if Syria and Jordan treated the refugees of Iraq as criminals? And guess what, our government is responsible for all three wars. So lets be honest with ourselves and just call them refugees.

Apr. 29 2010 11:18 AM
Henry from Elizabeth New Jersey

What about
or a variation of that:




Apr. 29 2010 11:18 AM
Jack from Manhattan

how about "unofficial resident" or "unofficial immigrant"

Apr. 29 2010 11:17 AM
Corinne from Scarsdale, NY

"unauthorized immigrant(s)" Many immigrants may have documents, but those documents do not necessarily belong to that particular person or might be fraudulent. At the same time, we do not refer to people who go over the speed limit as "illegal"; both have broken civil laws. A person cannot just BE illegal – it is not a state of being. Further, calling someone "illegal" completely relieves the receiving country (the U.S.) of any responsibility in the immigrant being here in the first place. Therefore, "unauthorized immigrant" seems to be the most accurate and humane.

Apr. 29 2010 11:16 AM
Gretchen Carlson from Chelsea

"NAFTA Refugees" Nafta destroyed traditional agriculture in central america, these people are fleeing an impossible situation created by the US

Apr. 29 2010 11:16 AM
Inquisigal from Brooklyn

I don't see what's so "loaded" about the term "illegal immigrant." It's factual, it's descriptive.

Though I consider myself a liberal, I'm so tired of these knee-jerk reactions by ultra-liberals to try to sugar-coat reality and bend over backwards to accommodate people who came here illegally. Seeking asylum is one thing, as is trying to work here through legal channels, but if I can't just pick up and go move to France or Spain and get a job, I don't see why the reverse is so hard for people to stomach here in the US.

Apr. 29 2010 11:15 AM
Jon from NYC

21st Century Nomads

Apr. 29 2010 11:14 AM
Luke from Middletown

Illegal immigrants is the correct and proper term. There is no bias involved. It is the actual legal term. All others are biased.

Apr. 29 2010 11:13 AM
susan from bergen county nj


Apr. 29 2010 11:13 AM
JC from NYC

How about "potential citizens" - its fair and hopefully true!

Apr. 29 2010 11:13 AM
Marissa from Manhattan


Forever foreigners - though possibly living here for decades, these people are always treated as being foreign.

Apr. 29 2010 11:13 AM
Jayadev from West Village

Free-range visitors.

Apr. 29 2010 11:10 AM
gaetano catelli from Greenpernt, Crooklyn


Apr. 29 2010 11:04 AM
Ken from Soho

Since they sneak into the country, how about "sneaks" or "sneakers"?

Apr. 29 2010 11:03 AM
Calls'em As I Sees'em from here, there and everywhere

No one is against legal immigration. Everyone should be against illegal immigration, especially elected officials and poor and working class people who are citizens and can't get work.

Apr. 29 2010 10:43 AM
Calls'em As I Sees'em from here, there and everywhere

How about: Criminals, felons, fugitives from justice, jail birds, burdens on the public purse, users, cheaters, federal prisoners, state prisoners, local prisoners, drug dealers, rapists, murderers, future deportees, future Democrat Party SEIU ACORN voter zombies, future Presidents of the United States, etc.

Apr. 29 2010 10:25 AM
Ken from Soho

How about a term just describing their present citizenship, such as Mexican or Pakistani? Of course, that doesn't address their present status in this country.

Apr. 29 2010 10:12 AM
Richard McDeremott from Queens New York

Illegal alien is the best term because that is exactly what they are.

Apr. 29 2010 10:07 AM

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