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It’s ‘undocumented,’ not ‘illegal’

It’s ‘undocumented,’ not ‘illegal’

It’s ‘undocumented,’ not ‘illegal’
March 22
08:00 2022

What is the correct term to describe the near-millions of people who cross the border every year? People often use titles like “illegal immigrant” or “illegal alien” to label these marginalized groups. Terms like these are often used to describe these people in a negative way, usually to further an agenda against immigrants who cross the southern border into the United States. 

The media’s use of the word “illegal” when describing immigrants coming from the southern border has had a hand in reinforcing stereotypes against the Latinx community. The term is offensive because it dehumanizes immigrants and gives the impression that they are criminals. While you think it’s just a harmless word to describe them, the implications the word carries are heavier than they seem.  

“Illegal” has a racist connotation to it as well. The word isn’t used to describe someone who committed an unlawful act, if that was the case we would use that term to describe someone who broke the law. We don’t consider someone who committed a murder or a burglary to be “illegal.” This word describes the person as a foreigner or someone who does not belong in the country. It is almost a perfect slur because it has all the negative connotations, just not the shock factor that would come with someone saying it out loud. 

There is also an inaccuracy that comes with the term. Only actions can be “illegal” — humans are not “illegal.” This continues to imply that the existence of undocumented immigrants in the country is breaking the law. Immigrants come to the U.S. to seek more opportunities because they want to create a better life for themselves and their families. That is not illegal. It is simply the “American Dream” people have been chasing since the beginning. 

Mexico is the most common origin country that these migrants travel from. In the 2021 fiscal year, 608,037 encounters with Mexican migrants were had at the southern border, accounting for 37 percent of the total. The remaining 63 percent were immigrants from other countries.

People tend to generalize immigrants and label them all as Mexicans and, while it is the U.S.- Mexican border, it does not mean all the people traveling through are solely Mexican. This generalization causes an added weight to people of Mexican descent, which is why they are usually targeted when it comes to these topics. 

We all remember the infamous Trump campaign speech where he referred to Mexicans as “rapists,” “drug dealers” and “criminals.” These remarks put an awful amount of stress over Mexicans and other Latinx immigrants because Trump labeled them as people who the public should be terrified of, essentially putting a target on their backs. It exploits racial fear and the aggression is then redirected to the entire minority group, whether they are documented or not.

Since 2016, racism against Latinx communities has risen steadily. Four-in-ten Latinxs have experienced discrimination in the past year, according to the Pew Research Center. This includes things like being told to “go back to your own country” or being criticized for speaking Spanish in public. 

We have seen how xenophobia has affected the Latinx communities and even Muslim communities, but will the tension around immigration ever cease? As humans continue to seek refuge across the border, there are policies still in place that are affecting them more than when they are in their home country.

Currently, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is holding immigrants in detention centers and separating families at the border. Nothing has been done to change their circumstances. In fact, President Joe Biden has reopened detention centers that were put in place by the Trump Administration. This has been a huge step backward for immigrant communities.

It is also a common misconception that immigrants are “sneaking” over the border. In reality, almost half of them have entered legally with a visa and simply overstayed their allotted time. This is a fault in government policymaking because they have made it difficult to acquire and renew visas, which makes being undocumented the easiest and only choice for immigrants. It can take many years before a visa is approved, not to mention how costly it is. There is also the chance that the visa application is rejected. This leaves people with no other choice but to make the journey across the border. 

Undocumented immigrants have gone through too much to be solely labeled as their single action. The word “illegal” continues to distract from the fact the person might’ve been residing in the U.S. for over a decade or is the parent of a U.S. born child. The use of the term “illegal immigrant” is an entire misconception in itself because no one is illegal. These people aren’t just immigrants, they are humans as we all are. 

Featured Illustration by J. Robynn Aviles

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Melanie Hernandez

Melanie Hernandez

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