The Associated Press decided to recommend against the use of the phrase "illegal immigrant".

  • What is the legal term for someone who crosses a border and resides in a country that they are not legally allowed entry to?

  • Does the AP play such a big role in the western (either US or European) news media that blocking the use of the term "illegal immigrant" would have a major effect?

  • 4
    I don't think this question is answerable. Isn't this more suited to a debate/ discussion than a question-answer format? Commented May 5, 2013 at 1:15
  • You really should not use the term "illegal" when it partners in any way with the term "alien". In a free country, people (all are created equal) are allowed to travel where they wish, apart from private property, so presumably the US is in contradiction to itself.
    – theDoctor
    Commented Nov 8, 2017 at 19:15

2 Answers 2


The proper term is "illegal alien," or "illegal immigrant."

An alien is a person in a country that they are not a citizen of:

Any person not a citizen or national of the United States.

Where as, an immigrant is:

"Permanent Resident Alien" - An alien admitted to the United States as a lawful permanent resident. Permanent residents are also commonly referred to as immigrants; however, the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) broadly defines an immigrant as any alien in the United States, except one legally admitted under specific nonimmigrant categories (INA section 101(a)(15)). An illegal alien who entered the United States without inspection, for example, would be strictly defined as an immigrant under the INA but is not a permanent resident alien.

The Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement both extensively use the terms "illegal alien" and "Illegal Immigrant," especially when compared with the "undocumented immigrant" or "undocumented worker." (100-1000 fold difference)

As for what effect the AP would have, that is impossible to determine. It should be noted that this sort of thing has happened before in the general public. The term idiot used to be used medically to describe people with mental retardation. But, people would use it as an insult, sometimes by children at other children who weren't actually mentally retarded), so to prevent bullying people were encouraged to use more politically correct terms. Moron, retard, midget, dwarf, gay and other terms have met similar fates.

  • 2
    It's the 'proper term' by what definition/authority? (It's definitely a common term, but is there any citation of it being officially used by an entity?)
    – user1530
    Commented May 9, 2013 at 20:54
  • @DA., the AP is headquartered in NY. Can you suggest a better proper term, than the legal one defined by US Immigration Services?
    – user1873
    Commented May 10, 2013 at 0:41
  • 1
    If USCIS uses that term, I think that's a perfect entity to cite. But the links you provide don't refer to "illegal aliens".
    – user1530
    Commented May 10, 2013 at 2:55
  • @DA., well, since DHS (100,000+ times) and ICE use the terms rather liberally...you might want to flip your downvote.
    – user1873
    Commented May 10, 2013 at 13:10
  • yep. Good citations!
    – user1530
    Commented May 10, 2013 at 15:16

To quote Wikipedia:

Although U.S. law provides no overarching explicit definition of the term "illegal alien," the term is used in many statutes and elsewhere (e.g., court cases, executive orders). U.S. law also uses the term "unauthorized alien." U.S. immigration laws do not refer to illegal immigrants, but in common parlance the term "illegal immigrant" is often used to refer to any illegal alien

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alien_(law) (note the quoted part contains 14 references that may be worth exploring.)

Based on my non-lawyer interpretation, I read that to say "there is no specific legal term, though 'unauthorized alien' is sometimes used. 'Illegal alien' is an accepted common term."

As for it having a major effect, I think it's fair to say language certainly has an affect on public policy making. To what specific extent this decision may have, I do not know.

  • Would the downvoter care to explain?
    – user1530
    Commented May 6, 2013 at 6:49
  • perhaps for claiming to not be a lawyer? +1 to compensate. Now all we need is Russel from HistorySE to post an answer on discourse to address the "language certainly has an affect on public policy" angle.
    – user4012
    Commented May 6, 2013 at 20:11

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