Multi-American

How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

An argument for 'unauthorized,' from a reader

Graffiti in Munich, Germany, Feb. 2008
Graffiti in Munich, Germany, Feb. 2008 Photo by stay sick/Flickr (Creative Commons)

What to call immigrants who don't have permission to be in the country? It's a long-running debate, and readers have been weighing in on it since a post last week highlighted one celebrity's use of the term "undocumented" during a presentation speech at the Oscars.

"Ohh the word Nazi's are out in force again," wrote a reader who identified as Hacim Obmed. The back-and-forth has been a familiar one, with some criticizing "undocumented," used as an alternative to "illegal," as a euphemism. I won't get into the arguments for or against either; some of the background is below. But perhaps for the first time on this site, one reader threw into the hat an argument for a third term, "unauthorized."

Here's an excerpt from what calwatch (not to be confused with the similar-sounding news organization) wrote:

Unauthorized is the most precise term. Many "undocumented" immigrants have documents, but they are not valid for work...

I would prefer "illegal" but it does assume that someone has been charged or convicted with the activity, which most unauthorized immigrants have not. And unauthorized avoids the stupid, counterproductive illegal vs. undocumented debate. It's splitting the baby into two, but at least we can move on and discuss the issue.


Officially, the standard mainstream media term continues to be “illegal immigrant,” as set forth in the AP Stylebook. But media outlets vary in the terms they use, with “illegal immigrant,” not to mention “illegals,” considered by many to be too politically charged. Some professional journalists’ groups have publicly embraced “undocumented,” including the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and the Society of Professional Journalists.

Immigrant advocates have also long argued that terms like "illegal" as a noun, "illegal immigrant" and "illegal alien" are dehumanizing; the social justice magazine ColorLines has a campaign aimed at media called “Drop the I-Word.”

“Unauthorized" tends to be used often by academics and researchers. It's found, for example, in the immigration-related reports put out by the Pew Hispanic Center. In a piece in the Huffington Post last week, Bender's Immigration Bulletin editor Dan Kowalski made this argument:

You’ll notice I used the term “unauthorized.” I prefer that to “undocumented” because, to be honest, many unauthorized aliens do indeed have documents — fake ones.

Plus, unauthorized sends a clear message that something is wrong, without diving into the lake of punitive, pejorative metaphors.

Thoughts, anyone? Feel free to post them below.

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