What’s in a label? An interview with AFSC's Amy Gottlieb on why words matter in the immigration policy debate

Immigrant advocates, including at AFSC, have argued forcefully that describing people as “illegal” divides communities and dehumanizes immigrants. By framing the central problem with U.S. immigration as an issue of legality, anti-immigrant policymakers and activists have built support for militarized border enforcement and mass deportation - even though most people support policies that provide a pathway to citizenship.

Despite efforts to “drop the I word,” the term still shows up in mainstream news coverage, politicians’ speeches, and everyday conversations. We also hear people using and misusing words like “unauthorized” and “undocumented” when talking about immigration. Even experts seem confused about what these different terms mean.

How much do the words we use matter? We spoke with AFSC Associate Regional Director Amy Gottlieb, an immigrant rights expert, about the use and abuse of these words.

Q. What’s the problem with using the word “illegal” to describe an immigrant?

A. We often hear “illegal immigrant,” “illegal alien” and so forth. But we at AFSC use the tagline, “no human being is illegal.” I immediately feel angry when I hear that someone is called illegal, because it implies that they are immoral or doing something immoral, and they aren’t. The term fosters responses that are blatantly racist, yet are couched in terms of someone doing something wrong. The use of the term “illegal alien” negates a person’s humanity and allows hateful anti-immigrant rhetoric to take over.  We recognize that our current immigration laws are outdated and need to be fully overhauled in order for immigrants to gain legal status in the U.S., and we support changes to these laws that protect immigrants, allow them to overcome any previous immigration violations, and ensure that all people are treated with dignity and respect.  In an ideal world, those changes would make it impossible for anyone to be called “illegal.”

Q. So what does it mean when we see immigrants described as “undocumented” or “unauthorized? Are those terms better?

A. “Undocumented” came out as a challenge to the word “illegal.” It’s more accurate than “illegal” because people don’t always have access to documents, including identity documents. But it is not a perfect replacement for the term. It still puts the onus on individuals just as “illegal” does, and it doesn’t recognize the role of the overall system that works to keep people without status. “Unauthorized” is a word that has been used at the global level – by UN entities for example – so it’s a little more common outside of the U.S. and among experts. It is more accurate than “undocumented” because it includes people who do have documents but who have overstayed their authorized time in the U.S., and it does give a little more responsibility to the system, though it still describes the person. No matter how you label it, none of these words accurately describe the real problem, which is that we have a system in which people don’t have access to necessary documentation and where it can be nearly impossible to adjust one’s status.

Q. How does the misuse of these terms harm immigrants?

A. The media’s focus on undocumented immigrants has perpetuated scapegoating of immigrants as causes for societal problems such as economic downturns, unemployment, and crime, while disregarding the real causes of those issues. Even though data shows that immigrants bring a net contribution to the economy and that higher rates of immigration are associated with lower crime rates, the public response to immigration has become more negative due to a myopic focus on immigration status and the careless use of terms like “criminal alien.”

At the same time this focus on legal status has obscured the truth about who is subject to deportation and detention, immigration raids, and targeting by law enforcement. The reality is that immigrants with many different statuses can get picked up in a raid and put in detention. Even people who have lived in the U.S. with legal status for years and who have deep roots in the community can be subject to detention and deportation proceedings, including people with green cards. The general public does not know about the negative effects of this system of raids, and does not understand that immigrants do not receive the due process protections that exist in the regular criminal justice system.

Ultimately this focus on legal status has reinforced a “good immigrant versus bad immigrant” narrative in the public debate about immigration, which makes it more difficult to advocate for fair, humane policies that treat all people with dignity, regardless of immigration status or whether they have had contact with the criminal system. We see this in the “deport felons not families” position from the Obama administration as well, which feeds public fears about immigrants while denying proper due process to non-citizens regardless of legal status. When President Obama talks about “deporting felons not families,” he forgets that people with criminal convictions are also part of families, and that those families would be torn apart by deportation. When President-elect Trump talks about deporting 2–3 million so-called “criminal aliens,” he is just fanning flames that perpetuate the “good immigrant” versus “bad immigrant” myth and allow ongoing scapegoating, discrimination, and hate crimes to persist, without focusing on the real solutions, which are to ensure access to status, due process, and the right to remain with family. At AFSC instead of sorting between “good immigrants” and “bad immigrants” we advocate for the humane treatment of every person.  

Q. What would you say to readers interested in helping to make everyday language more inclusive?

A. One of the key messages would be to start with the person. Who is this individual and why did they choose to come to the U.S.?  What are their family ties, their history, their story?  Then, talk about root causes, the forces that drive people to migrate, understanding that the labels of status are often inaccurate and are often based on suspicion or profiling. Obviously, by looking at someone you don’t know their status. It needs to be a deep and engaged conversation that seeks to understand and remake the system, including addressing root causes of migration at a much broader level.

This is especially important in light of the incoming Trump administration’s promises to surveil and deport immigrants, and to harass and torment them. We are already seeing a sharp uptick in hate crimes against people, regardless of legal status, who are people of color, women, LGBTQ, and foreign-born. All of us must rise to this challenge and resist calls to dehumanize people, especially those who are most vulnerable: immigrants. Support sanctuary movements including the cities, universities, and civil society and religious organizations that have promised to protect people. And don’t let slippery language that can dehumanize us, our friends, family, and neighbors circulate unchecked. Instead of focusing on status, an abstract legal category, we must focus on immigrants’ humanity. Immigration policies affect the lives of members of our communities – and all of us, not abstract categories of people.