Investigating the fine line of legality in the SF Bay Area

“Illegal”: A Burning Adjective

July 4, 2015

Many American citizens look upon undocumented immigrants with scorn and derision, using a burning, alienating term of description: “illegal.”  However, the term “illegal” itself implies bias and derision against foreign peoples and prevents us from seeing the truth – that they are human.

People don’t realize that the word ‘illegal’ has severely marginalizing effects on the individuals it so carelessly labels.

Diego Garcia, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico and a fresh graduate of the University of California, Los Angeles, elaborates on the negative effects the word “illegal” has on society’s views of undocumented people.

“Many people think that immigrants without documentation are lazy and ignorant; they think we are often involved in shady business dealings and are at fault for failing to become citizens,” Diego said. “But in reality, many of us are hard workers looking for a better life, who, by unfortunate circumstance, were prevented from obtaining documentation.”


Mass media is one of its most prominent perpetrators; journalists at times fail to realize that by use of such an adjective are they failing to uphold political neutrality and clarity. The Associated Press is a good example of a major news outlet which makes bold use of the adjective to this day. Think of the effects, both conscious and subconscious, this has on longtime readers.

Furthermore, much of the time we are unaware that the statuses of immigrants are fluid; that they have opportunities, if by the right stroke of time, circumstance and luck, to become documented citizens. They are not to be stuck in the rut of undocumentation forever, as many of us assume.  Further, our usage of the word illegal is simply inaccurate. The term “illegal” is officially defined in the dictionary as, “contrary to or forbidden by law, especially criminal law.”

Therefore, in our labeling of immigrants without documents, we are essentially criminalizing them for their status – we are deeming their act of living in America without citizenship a federal offense and an act punishable by law. Mind you; we’re forgetting one crucial fact in this entire affair: the act of living in the United States of America without authorization is a civil offense – it is not a criminal one. A civil offense often involves violation of administrative matters (for example, being hired without documentation). Why are we slurring people without documentation as “illegal,” as criminals? Undocumented immigrants may be subject to deportation at the worst – but even that has to be determined by a lengthy court process. To label an undocumented immigrant as illegal is comparable to calling an accused defendant in the time before their trial guilty.

Another misconception is the public thinking of undocumented immigrants as impoverished refugees who steal across the Mexican-American border in the darkness of night. In actuality, over half come to the United States with a visa or some other form of temporary, legal documentation, but overextend their stay for a number of reasons, whether it be to work, to start a family, or to even serve in the U.S. military. According to a study by the U.S. census, there are around 40,000 undocumented immigrants in the military as of today. We, the common American citizens, are so easily and naturally grounded in our born, documented statuses that we hardly give ourselves time to mull matters over – how are we using the adjective in all its implicating glory?

In our use of the adjective “illegal,” we are objectifying, dehumanizing and stripping the immigrant of his or her status as a person. Yunuen Trujillo, 28, an undocumented immigration rights activist, wishes to remind many of us that a person is more than just documentation, that “[undocumented immigrants] are people with dreams and aspirations of their own, people with high morals and work ethics.”

Let us take a short trip back in time: According to the Jewish Virtual Library, the term “illegal immigrant” was first used by the British to describe Jews fleeing the Holocaust; many of the English were resentful of the sudden in-pour into Palestine without documentation. The British ended up limiting the absorptive capacity of Palestine by partitioning the country, only to later on admit such action based upon foreign animosity specious.


The purpose of this article is not to give validity and justification to those without respect for our laws and borders, but is to stand against the sociopolitical bias towards undocumented immigrants with the rampant use of the word “illegal.” It is time to halt the reduction of a human being to his or her documentation. Let us begin to rehumanize the mass media and society’s perspective of undocumented immigrants.

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