Illegal vs. undocumented: the debate over immigration language on Lexicon Valley.

Lexicon Valley Debates “Illegal” Versus “Undocumented” Immigrants

Lexicon Valley Debates “Illegal” Versus “Undocumented” Immigrants

A show about the mysteries of English.
Nov. 13 2012 3:43 PM

From “Wetbacks” to “Illegals” to “Undocumented” to … ?

Listen to Slate’s show about the heated debate over language at the heart of U.S. immigration policy.

Lexicon Valley has moved! Find new episodes here.

Listen to Lexicon Valley Episode No. 21: Undocumented Illegals

In his 2007 book Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear, Republican strategist Frank Luntz suggested that the distinction between undocumented and illegal in discussing immigration “may prove to be the political battle of the decade.” It’s a battle long waged by academics and activists and, more recently, news organizations like the Associated Press and the New York Times, both of which maintain that illegal remains perfectly neutral and accurate. With immigration reform almost certainly near the top of President Obama’s second-term agenda, it’s likely that these terms (and possibly some others) will continue to vie for pride of place in the larger debate. In this episode of Lexicon Valley, Bob Garfield and I discuss some of the historical context and ask you, the listener/reader, to weigh in.

You'll find every Lexicon Valley episode at, or in the player below:

Mike Vuolo Mike Vuolo

Mike Vuolo is a radio and podcast producer and the host of Lexicon Valley.

Send your thoughts about the show to

You can also read the transcript of this episode below.

BOB: From Washington, D.C. this is Lexicon Valley, a podcast about language. I’m Bob Garfield with Mike Vuolo and today, episode No. 21 titled “Undocumented Illegals,” wherein we discuss the heated debate over language at the center of U.S. immigration policy. Yo Mikey.

MIKE: Hey Bobby. You still wearing your "I Voted" sticker?

BOB: [laughing] You know, I actually did have trouble peeling it off my, like, microfiber windbreaker. It was not a clean peel.

MIKE: This is actually the first time that we've spoken since the election, I think, right?

BOB: Yeah, mm-hmm.

MIKE: How was it for you?


BOB: It was good. I did what my homosexual, socialist puppet masters insisted I do and I voted for Obama and for gay marriage in Maryland. So I'm a big winner.

MIKE: Yeah, you are. You know, I was so sick of the election by the time it came around that the first thing I did Wednesday morning was to delete the Real Clear Politics app from my phone, because I don't want to see any stats ...

BOB: You deleted the messenger.

MIKE: [laughing] Yeah, I did. I killed the messenger. I was awash for the last several weeks in, will Obama turn out the young vote like he did in 2008? Will Romney make up the difference by appealing to older, rural voters? We here at Lexicon Valley appeal to everybody, as evidenced by a recent iTunes review. I'll read it to you. "I listen to a lot of podcasts but this is the only one that is fascinating to both my mother and me. Thanks for giving us something to share in the car when I visit and chauffeur." I thought that was really nice.


BOB: That is nice, although I have to apologize to his mom and maybe to him for all the vulgar language that we have intermittently used. I hope no offense was taken. Certainly none was intended. Well not, not much anyway.

MIKE: [laughing] You know, I'm looking at the review right now and I just noticed something. If I didn't know that Barack Obama's mother was deceased I might think that he actually wrote this because the user name is "Not that sort of Kenyan."

BOB: Aha!

MIKE: In any case, it was in fact the election that inspired this episode of Lexicon Valley. It was our ballot in particular. And when I say our ballot I mean yours and mine Bob, because we had the exact same ballot. We live just up the road from each other in Maryland.


BOB: It's true. We're neighbors. You're Mr. Rogers and I'm Mr. McFeely.

MIKE: Well, if you actually voted and I believe you, I'm guessing that you did, you, like me, had to wade through - let's see, I have it here, a sample ballot - about nine referendum questions. One of them was what's been called the Maryland version of the DREAM Act.

BOB: Yeah, and the DREAM Act is the one that attempts to deal with the problem of young people who have no documentation but who were brought to the United States by their parents and had no control whatsoever of their immigration status, and so therefore should perhaps be the beneficiaries of all the opportunities that we want for all of our young people.

MIKE: Yeah, and that's a federal bill, which has never been passed, but it's had several different incarnations over the past 10, 12 years. I'll read just the very beginning of our Maryland ballot referendum. If it were to pass, it "Establishes that individuals, including undocumented immigrants, are eligible to pay in-state tuition rates at community colleges in Maryland, provided the student meets certain conditions relating to attendance and graduation from a Maryland high school," et cetera, et cetera. Now, note the use of the phrase "undocumented immigrants" in that ballot question.


BOB: Noted.

MIKE: Now, like all good citizens, I wanted to know what our various local publications thought about these ballot questions before voting, so I did some research. If you look at what the D.C. Examiner, for example, wrote - and for those who don't know what the Examiner is, it's, I don't know, well how would you describe it Bob?

BOB: And explicitly, often caustically conservative paper.

MIKE: Yeah, I think that pretty much sums it up. So the Examiner recommends voting against the DREAM Act because it "would give added in-state tuition breaks to those in this country illegally." Now, by way of contrast, there's an online publication called Greater Greater Washington that is, I would say, progressive. And, by the way Bob, I don't know if you're familiar with Greater Greater Washington, but they have what's in my opinion one of the best taglines of any publication. It's their sort of equivalent of "All the News That's Fit to Print." You ready?


BOB: Go ahead.

MIKE: "The Washington, DC area is great. But it could be greater."

BOB: [laughing]

MIKE: Hence Greater Greater Washington.

BOB: As a resident of Greater Washington, I admire their vision and I wish them the best.

MIKE: They suggest voting for the DREAM Act. In their endorsement they never use the word "illegal." They do, however, use the phrase "undocumented immigrant." What's interesting is that the Washington Post, which also supported the Maryland DREAM Act, wrote an entire editorial about it in which they used some form of the word "illegal" three times and "undocumented" three times. So, it seems that they're conflicted and the reason I wanted to talk about this is that I've been conflicted too over this distinction between "illegal" and "undocumented." And I think that in the last five or so years those two words have really become signifiers in a way of a person's kind of conscious, politically inflected, language choice.

BOB: Well, I'm not sure I can throw in with you on that for reasons that I think will eventually become clear in this conversation but I take the point, particularly if people are straining to use terms like "undocumented" and never let the word "illegal" pass their lips. That does suggest a certain worldview. I guess you're right there. As a matter of fact, Mike, as you know not long ago on “On the Media” - which is my day job - I spoke with Jose Antonio Vargas, the journalist, who outed himself as an undocumented American and has taken lately to advocating against the word "illegal," which he believes is stigmatizing and inaccurate and, as you say, an indicator of a certain political mindset. I didn't necessarily agree with him and we quibbled on this point, but it certainly is a kind of zeitgeist issue.

MIKE: Yeah, and we'll get to the sort of current debate that's going on in journalistic circles, but before we do that I think it's important to first establish a little bit of the historical context here. So, once upon a time, even when debates about immigration came up in political circles, neither of these words would be invoked. So for example, in 1920 there were hundreds of farmers in Texas and the Southwest - these were largely cotton farmers and vegetable farmers - who were experiencing a really sever labor shortage in part because of World War I. So a congressman from Texas - his name was Claude Hudspeth - he introduced a bill that would suspend certain provisions of immigration law and allow these farmers to hire Mexicans. So this big hearing was held in the House of Representatives and Hudspeth brought with him telegrams from actual farmers in support of his bill. A farmer named C.L. Jessup wrote: "I am operating a 2,000-acre plantation under irrigation. Almost every laborer on the place is a Mexican citizen. If these should be deported and others barred from entering Texas our plantation would be forced to lie idle." Another farmer named Don Biggers wrote: "We go into spring gathering crops hopelessly behind with work and little help. Negroes gone. Whites quit. Mexicans still on job and only hope."

BOB: So what you're saying is Mike is as far back as like 90 years ago white Texas farmers were agitating for permission to hire what we now call illegals from Mexico.

MIKE: Yeah, yeah exactly. But hold that thought for a second. Let's first look at the language that's actually used in this hearing in talking about Mexicans. And you could imagine that it's not necessarily flattering. Some of this language was catalogued by an anthropologist at Arizona State University. His name is Luis Plascencia and he points out that throughout the hearing you see phrases like "the Mexicans," "these people," "these Mexicans," "the Mexican labor," "peon labor" and "wetbacks."

BOB: Whoa. And this was public testimony. That would not stand today, but at a minimum it certainly makes "illegals" look not so bad.

MIKE: [laughing] Yeah, and keep in mind this is 1920. And actually there's a really interesting exchange during the hearing involving that word "wetback." The chairman of the hearing, who was a representative from Washington State, was apparently not very familiar with that word and he said, "Let us get a definition of those terms. What is a wetback?" A congressman from Ohio: "The reason they are called ‘wetbacks’ is because they get wet in coming across, is it?" Claude Hudspeth from Texas: "Yes, they get wet when they swim the river coming to this country."

BOB: Oh my god [laughing]. You know, I have some issues with political correctness but at moments like this I kind of really appreciate it.

MIKE: [laughing] So, although terms like "wetback" were used during this congressional hearing, one term that is never used - and I searched the entire transcript, about 375 pages - is "undocumented." Another word that's never used to describe Mexicans is "illegal." That word only comes up when, for example, the chairman asks if there have ever been any known instances of illegal voting by Mexicans or when somebody refers to a tax as illegal, things like that.

BOB: Now I do remember from my youth, which was not the '20s Mike, a lot of references to "aliens." There would be these notices on TV every year around the holidays reminding "aliens" that they have to register with the INS or something like that.

MIKE: Mm-hmm.

BOB: I don't remember the term "illegal" alien back in the '60s or '70s let's say. When did "illegal" become a recognizable term to describe those unlawfully in the country?

MIKE: I spoke with a linguistic anthropologist at UMass Amherst. His name is Jonathan Rosa and he points out that terms like "illegal immigrant" and "illegals" first started gaining traction in the press in the late 1930s in a context that had nothing at all to do with either Mexicans or ever the United States. Here's Rosa.

JONATHAN ROSA: The Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel has very famously promoted the slogan that “No human being is illegal.” When he suggests this he’s really invoking a history in which Jews were targeted as illegal immigrants when they were fleeing Nazi Germany and other nations taken over by the Nazis. This is something that many people kind of reflect on with a sense of shame.

BOB: Yikes. Okay, that's haunting.

MIKE: Yeah, the original "illegal immigrants" were Jews. And, in fact, if you look at the Oxford English Dictionary you see that all of its earliest citations for these terms are in reference to Jews. So, 1939: "Illegal immigration into Palestine probably dates ... to Turkish times, but it is now assuming alarming proportions." 1949: "The hunting down of 'illegal immigrants' became gradually an obsession with the Palestine authorities." This from a 1960 book about Jewish survivors: "The British announced that all future 'illegals' would be taken to Cyprus." You see there "illegal" being used as a noun. And, in fact, in 1947 a Jewish filmmaker named Meyer Levin made a docudrama about concentration camp survivors wandering in search of a home throughout Europe and Palestine. The movie is called "The Illegals."

BOB: Well now come to think of it this is reminiscent of the film Exodus. I never read Leon Uris's book but I decades ago saw the film and, if memory serves, the whole first half of the movie was about the British administration's attempts to suppress Jewish emigration into Palestine, suppress it at the point of a rifle.

MIKE: Yeah, and if fact Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist who's been on this show, several years ago talked about how the British coined "illegal" as a noun "in the 1930s to describe Jews who entered Palestine without official permission, and it has been used ever since as a way of reducing individual to their infractions."

BOB: Okay, so that's Palestine in the '30s. When did the term start being applied to undocumented immigrants in the United States, particularly Mexicans and Central Americans?

MIKE: That came about in the sort of mid-1960s. And for a few decades prior to that the U.S. had what was called the Bracero Program, which was a kind of guest worker program whereby American companies, mostly agricultural companies, could legally employ Mexicans as laborers - much like what Claude Hudspeth back in 1920 was advocating for in Congress. And in fact the Bracero Program was started in the early 1940s when there was a labor shortage because of World War II.

BOB: Like Turkish gastarbeiters in Germany and the rest of Europe.

MIKE: Yes. Exactly. This program was discontinued in 1964/1965, which resulted in a dramatic increase in illegal Mexican immigration. And in fact that's when - mid to late 1960s - the word "illegal" starts getting attached more strongly to people coming here from south of the border.

BOB: Now it's funny. In the '60s when I started seeing these annual notices on, you know, UHF television at midnight, I never really made the connection between these aliens who were being called upon to register with Mexicans. You know I imagined somehow that Canadians were flowing over the border or, I don't know, Norwegians or some such but I lived in Pennsylvania. My only sense in those days of Mexicans had to do with the farm workers movement in California, where Cesar Chavez was trying to codify laws to protect what then were known simply as "migrant laborers," the people who picked strawberries and oranges and so forth seasonally and lived very difficult lives.

MIKE: In fact that movement was much larger than just California. It's what's known as the Chicano Movement, a kind of activist labor, civil rights and other rights movement that was active in many states. And if fact one prominent activist named Bert Corona is often credited with very consciously using and sort of pushing the term "undocumented" as an alternative to "illegal." And those two terms started to sort of coexist somewhat uneasily throughout the 1970s. And in fact there's a press conference, a Jimmy Carter press conference from 1977 in which he's asked by a reporter: "Mr. President, for many weeks now you had officials of your administration studying the problem of illegal aliens coming to this country from Mexico. Can you tell us when you will have a policy in place to deal with that and what its main features will be?" Carter answers: "My guess is that I will have a message to present on the illegal or undocumented aliens probably within the next two weeks."

BOB: So there they're identified as synonyms. But I have to tell you Mike, the most interesting word I detected in the reporter's question to President Carter was "problem," because this reporter certainly was not on the same page with Mr. Hudspeth from the '20s ...

MIKE: Mm-hmm.

BOB: ... who saw Mexican labor not as a problem but a solution. Hard working people willing to work for low wages to fill a labor void created by the marketplace.

MIKE: Yeah, and if fact that telegram that I read in part from C.L. Jessup, it ends, "Please help us." I mean these farmers were desperate for labor and they saw Mexicans as the solution. But now you see in the 1970s for people, like politicians, who choose their words carefully this was becoming linguistically tricky.

BOB: So here's a question all radio interviewers like to be able to ask: So then what happened?

MIKE: Well let's first take a short break and talk about our sponsor


MIKE: All right, so that's some of the historical context. And, you know, I said before that we would talk about how it's playing out now in more journalistic circles. So, if you look at the past decade, in 2005 Frank Luntz, who is a Republican language strategist I guess you'd call him - Republican language propagandist I think some people would call him.

BOB: Yeah Mike, he's the one who, for example, coined the term "death tax" to describe the federal inheritance tax to get across the idea the greedy hands of big government are going through your pockets even as you lie still in your coffin.

MIKE: Yeah, and if fact he wrote a book around this time called Words that Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear ...

BOB: Oh man.

MIKE: Which gives you a sense of what his philosophy of language is. He published a memo in 2005 called The Principles and Language of Immigration Reform. This was a kind of primer for Republicans on how to talk about immigration. There's one word that appears more than any other I would wager, with the possible exception of like "a" or "the," and that's “illegal.” It occurs 160 times in 25 pages.

BOB: Now Luntz's essay wasn't just him thinking out loud. It was a linguistic action plan nailed to the doors of American Conservatism.

MIKE: It was a kind of call to action because in 2005 Congress was debating what was called the Sensenbrenner Bill. It was sponsored by Jim Sensenbrenner, a Republican from Wisconsin, and it was a very sort of restrictive immigration bill. It had a whole bunch of provision. It was, you know, 250 pages long or something, but some of the more notable ones were that if local police, anywhere in the U.S., detained somebody who was here illegally they would have to turn them over to the federal government. You couldn't just let them go. Also, under certain circumstances if you were caught housing somebody who was here illegally it would be considered a felony crime and you could go to jail for three years.

BOB: Oh my God. Talk about haunting echoes of Nazi Germany. Goodness gracious.

MIKE: This bill actually passed in the House. Then there were these really large protests all around the country in early 2006. It did not pass in the Senate. It was right around this time, when lots of news outlets were writing about the Sensenbrenner Bill and immigration reform, that the debate over language between "illegal" and "undocumented" really started to play out internally in news organizations and among journalists. In 2006, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists officially sort of disavowed the use of the word "illegal" and recommended “undocumented.” The Associated Press, which has a very widely used stylebook among journalists, has over the last several years held their ground with “illegal,” even over the questions and objections of some of their employees. And in 2011, the Society of Professional Journalists passed a resolution saying "only the court system, not reporters and editors, can decide when a person has committed an illegal act." They voted to encourage discussion and re-evaluation of the use of "illegal immigrant" in news stories.

BOB: On the other hand, as recently as about six weeks ago the New York Times affirmed the usage of "illegal" on the grounds of it's hard to be wrong by calling a thing by its name. The reasoning is, and I have to say I mostly agree with this, that being unlawfully within the borders, whether you were brought here by your parents or whether you have overstayed a visa or what have you, is against the law and the shortest synonym for that is "illegal." And they're concerned about the kind of linguistic revisionism which robs perfectly legitimate adjectives and nouns of their meaning in an attempt to destigmatize them. Getting back to political correctness, here's what's bad about it. So often it seem to me, with the perfectly noble motive of wanting to destigmatize people for things that are not necessarily their fault, we have lost meaning in just a whole slew of words from physical disabilities to ethnic backgrounds to you name it. And I'm not sure I want "illegal" to be the latest casualty in the linguistic wars.

MIKE: I asked Jonathan Rosa what he thought about these news organizations sort of standing by their belief that "illegal" remained neutral and accurate. Here's a couple of minutes of the conversation I had with him.

JONATHAN ROSA: It’s frustrating to see folks try to claim that something like illegal is neutral or accurate when it clearly is more about staking out a claim to a political identity as conservative. And undocumented is about staking out a political identity as liberal or progressive. I mean, neither of them is neutral.

MIKE: So if both of these terms come pre-loaded in a sense with an agenda, what’s the alternative? You know, for someone like me who doesn’t really like using either of these words should I sort of split the difference and say “undocumented illegals” or something?

ROSA: [laughing] Yeah, I understand the frustration and it’s interesting, on the one hand I want to be able to say: Look, I get that this is a practical, logistical problem, right, actually having language to use to characterize the situation. However, I hesitate to simply frame this as a matter of language, right, to suggest that if we come up with a magically, you know, completely neutral term …

MIKE: Problem solved.

ROSA: Yeah, problem solved. All we need is a better phrasing. And so I don’t want people to think that, oh, you know listen to the scholars, how naïve they are. They think this is just semantics.

MIKE: But language is really important because, as the Frank Luntz’s of the world understand, language is what can really help shape public policy.

ROSA: Yeah, absolutely. And others have pointed out, for example, that OK, we talk about certain kinds of biologists and we call them marine biologists. But that doesn’t mean that they’re from the sea or something like this, that they were born in the water. You know, you can say that someone is an illegal immigrant just like you can say that someone is illegally parked. But if, in fact, we look at how some of these usages, how they work in context, there’s this way that illegality maps onto one’s entire person. You know we see slogans that say things like “illegal immigrant hunting permit.” This has concrete consequences in the sense that in the FBI’s most recent annual report, Latinos constituted two-thirds of the victims of ethnically motivated hate crimes. This usage of “illegal” is a way of framing an entire population regardless of their migration status. So you have many people who were born citizens of the United States, but because of the way that this notion of “illegal” has racialized connotations, their citizenship status is called into question.

MIKE: Mm-hmm.

ROSA: We should be really cautious about how we frame entire populations. Because much like we look back at that moment in which Jews – who were attempting to survive – we look back on this moment with shame. The question is whether we’ll look back on this moment similarly.

BOB: Okay Mike. His invocation once again of the Holocaust does give one pause. And I certainly take his point. But can I give you another example of something that's not quite as freighted with historical nightmare or contemporary political ideology? Remember when people who could not see were called "blind"? Now "blind" is a perfectly legitimate word. It describes the condition and equally describes those so afflicted. And yet it became deemed stigmatizing to people who couldn't see. So, all of a sudden, the blind ceased to be blind. They began to be visually handicapped. But then, oh no, handicapped was itself stigmatizing. Then maybe visually impaired but even that seems to have an edge to it, so now people are not handicapped or impaired or disabled but they're challenged. And sometimes they're differently abled, and it goes on and on, you know, well into absurdity. What happens, it seems to me is, that each of the words chosen to replace the word supposedly stigmatizing itself eventually becomes stigmatizing because it takes on all of the stigma attached to the condition itself. It's not the word that's stigmatizing. It's the condition and Luntzian linguistics can't change that.

MIKE: I wanna make two points by way of pushing back, because as I mentioned before I really have been conflicted about this over the past couple of years. So, one: Jonathan Rosa talked about the larger context in which this word "illegal" is often used. And there's a linguist at UCLA - his name is Otto Santa Ana - who looked at the metaphors that people use to describe illegal immigration and illegal immigrants. And in particular he looked at the Los Angeles Times in the mid-'90s when Proposition 187 was a huge topic of conversation in the national media. Proposition 187 was another one of these ballot initiatives that was very restrictive with regard to immigration policy. There were about 116 L.A. Times articles from 1992 to 1994 that he looked at. The second most popular metaphor to describe illegal immigration was war related, like an invasion or a takeover. These were words that came up in news reports, often quoting sources or even quoting Gov. Pete Wilson who was the governor of California at the time.

BOB: Yeah, I think the war imagery just narrowly edged out pestilence, such as swarming over the border.

MIKE: Exactly. Disease and burden was also one of the sort of secondary metaphors. Can you guess what the dominant metaphor was, the one that was used about 60 percent of the time?

BOB: Mmmmm. I don't know.

MIKE: It was some sort of "dangerous water" type metaphor. "Flood," "surge." Some of the words that were used were "sea," "tide," "influx," "waves," "drowning," "pouring," "streaming," "swamping." He also looked, as I mentioned, at metaphors that people used to describe the immigrants themselves. The people, not just the idea of illegal immigration. Some of the sort of secondary metaphors were again war related (“invader,” “soldier”), water related, body related (“parasites”). Guess what the dominant metaphor was for immigrants.

BOB: Okay, I give up.

MIKE: Animal related.

BOB: Ah!

MIKE: Some sort of hunting metaphor. And so, for me, "illegal" appears within the larger context of a kind of dehumanizing language around this issue. That's one really important point for me. The second is that I think calling a group of people "illegal" for coming to this country for work totally ignores and obscures, I think, the role that companies and the government has played in recruiting this labor. I mean we saw that in 1920. We saw it with the Bracero Program. We've seen it in more recent times when corporations are encouraged to sort of look the other way because they want cheap labor. You know, for those two reasons alone, that's enough to sort of knock me off the fence and look for a different word. And you know I asked Jonathan Rosa, what's the alternative? And he mentioned "unauthorized" as a possible term that isn't politically charged. And if fact the day after the election I was reading the New Yorker online and they listed a number of sort of policy proposals and issues that they thought Obama would try to tackle in his second term, one of which was immigration reform. And they said that the goal should be to "pass the DREAM Act. Make a deal with Republicans on a comprehensive immigration bill that includes a path to legalization for unauthorized immigrants."

BOB: Mm-hmm.

MIKE: And I thought, well, you know, I think I could live with that word.

BOB: And to me that is the "differently abled" of immigration policy. It doesn't even mean anything. It's so expansive. Unauthorized? What does it mean you don't have a pass to get backstage? Ehhh. I think that gets to the very nub of why it is very dangerous to try to use linguistic revisionism as a means to pursue social policy. It just kind of misses the point and bastardizes language and obscures meaning. So, I think your argument has made me solidify mine.

MIKE: I actually don't think we're all that far apart on this Bob, because I think that while you understand the sort of dehumanizing effect of casting an entire population as "illegal" and how that term then becomes associated with Mexicans whether they're citizens or not, and I understand that it's important to call things by their name, we can sort of touch hands right across the fence here. So maybe we'll throw this out to our listeners and ask them. Tell us what you think. Has this word "illegal" become far too stigmatized for the various points that I've made or does it remain accurate and useful for the points that Bob has made. You can write to us at