The Politics of Terminology: Using the Phrase “Illegal Immigration”


A proliferation of terminology is used by governments, state agencies, media outlets and academics to refer to those that are considered to be illegally resident and/or employed in a country. This terminology varies depending upon the context and contains within it various political (and often negative) connotations. Some of these phrases include: “illegal”, “clandestine”, “unauthorized”, “undocumented”, “irregular”, “non-compliant”, “illegal alien”, “non-status”, and “unlawful” (Anderson and Ruhs, 2010: 175; Duvell, 2006: 3-4; Mountz, 2010: xxvii). The term “illegal” is mainly employed in Western and Northern European countries, such as Ireland. The phrase “clandestine” is mostly applied in Southern European countries. The terms “unauthorized” and “undocumented” are very much US terms. In some cases, the terms that are employed are specific to the country, examples being “sans-papiers” in France, “sin papeles” in Spain, “migranten zonder papieren” in the Netherlands, and “papierlose” in Germany. NGOs try to employ less-negative terminology (e.g. “undocumented”) in an attempt to draw attention away from the criminal undertones that are inherent within many terms and to focus on the bureaucratic nature of migration law and regulation (Duvell, 2008: 484). The Associated Press in the US no longer permits the use of the term “illegal immigrant” and state that the phrases “person entering a country illegally” or “without legal permission” should be employed (Bauder, 2013; Colford, 2013; Morison, 2013). Academics, often in an attempt to remain independent, commonly use the terms “irregular” or “unauthorized” (Anderson and Ruhs, 2010: 175; Duvell, 2008: 484). Groenendijk, for instance, prefers to employ the term “irregular” to avoid disqualifying the human beings concerned and to imply that the irregularity of their status may be remedied one day (2004: xix). Like Dauvergne (2008) and Wright (2013), Bauder (2013: 3) argues that the term “illegalized” can be adopted as an alternative to “illegal”, as it shifts the emphasis away from the individual and toward the societal processes that place immigrants in positions of illegality. In conjunction with this range of terminology alternative concepts dominate mainstream discourse about these migrants. Phrases such as “bogus asylum seeker”, “economic refugee” and “transit migrant” imply that migrants are disingenuous, underhanded, and temporary. Often, this broad collection of terms are used interchangeably and inaccurately.

Due to the politicized nature of the terminology surrounding this issue, researchers must be mindful of their use of language in this regard. Indeed, the specific term “illegal immigration” has become quite political in recent times and has multiple meanings associated with it depending upon the context. I think it is important for me to clearly set out and justify my use this specific term (“illegal immigration”) in both my research and on this website. I must state firstly that I broadly agree with those that argue that more acceptable, sympathetic and accurate language should be used in relation to those defined as “illegal”. However, in relation to the specific research that I undertook as part of my PhD and my ongoing work, it is important to actively employ and explicitly use the term “illegal immigration”. My use of the term “illegal immigration” is specific to the Irish context, where the term is used by key institutions (such as the Parliament, state agencies, and the newsprint media) and therefore the general public to refer to those that have an “illegal”/irregular migration status in the Irish context. In using this term I am not agreeing to its use or to its inherent negative connotations. I use this phrase in order to be precise. Alternative terms, such as “undocumented”, cannot be used to refer to migrants in the Irish context, as this phrase refers to a different group of migrants – Irish emigrants in the US who are in an irregular situation. Furthermore, my research examines the discourses that surround “illegal immigration”, thus, one must engage with the term “illegal”. The alternatives posed by others to employ an apparently less negative and a more politically correct term would be distancing this research from that which is under analysis: discursive representations of those defined as “illegal immigrants” in Ireland. Therefore, in order to be accurate, one must use the term “illegal”. Nonetheless, I acknowledge that my sustained use of this term may (unwillingly) contribute to the continued use of the term in the Irish context. Perhaps Bauder’s (2013) suggestion of using the term “illegalized” may be a way forward. However, without a full explanation of this phrase, the newly implied meaning (that aims to focus attention on State practices of exclusion towards immigrants) may be lost to the average reader. Indeed, the term “illegalized” may be too similar to the term “illegal”. Upon reflection, it seems to me that it is quite difficult to place an appropriate phrase on this topic and these migrants. Perhaps the only way that one can attempt to address this in some manner is to continue to highlight how phrases like “illegal” are constructed in order to create differences between people, which justify exclusionary practices in society.


Anderson, B. and Ruhs, M. (2010) Guest editorial, researching illegality and labor migration. Population, Space, and Place, 16, 175-179.

Bauder, H. (2013) Why we should use the term illegalized immigrant. RCIS Research Brief No. 2013/1 (online), Ryerson Centre for Immigration and Settlement: Toronto. Available at:  (accessed 01 October 2013).

Colford, P. (2013) “Illegal Immigrant” No More. The Definite Source (online). Available at: (accessed 01 October 2013).

Dauvergne, C. (2008) Making People Illegal: What Globalization Means for Migration and Law. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Duvell, F. (2006) Illegal immigration in Europe: patterns, causes and consequences Unpublished paper presented at: University of Stockholm, Seminar on Irregulars, Sans Papier, Hidden, Illegal and Black Labor, Stockholm, 29 November 2006.

Duvell, F. (2008) Clandestine migration in Europe. Social Science Information, 47(4), 479-497.

Groenendijk, K. (2004) Introduction In: Bogusz, B., Cholewinski, R., Cygan, A. and Szyszczak, E., eds. (2004) Irregular migration and human rights: theoretical, European and International perspectives. Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers. xvii-xxii.

Morrison, P. (2013) Extra, Extra! ‘Illegal Immigrant’ and other Language Changes. Los Angeles Times, April 8 2013. Available at: (accessed 01 October 2013).

Mountz, A. (2010) Seeking Asylum. Human Smuggling and Bureaucracy at the Border. London: University of Minnesota Press.

Wright, C. (2013) The Museum of Illegal Immigration: Historical Perspectives on the Production of Non-Citizens and Challenges to Immigration Control. In Goldring, L. and Landolt, P. (2013) Producing and negotiating non-citizenship: precarious legal status in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 31-54


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