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"Illegal immigrant" is often used by conservatives to refer to a person who enters a country in violation of that country's laws; "undocumented immigrant" is often used by liberals. Conservatives often criticize the term "undocumented" because they believe it underemphasizes the illegality of their immigration; liberals criticize the term "illegal" for the opposite reason.

Is there a way to refer to undocumented/illegal immigrants that is seen as unbiased by both liberals and conservatives? I would prefer a one or two word phrase, but something like "people who enter the United States unlawfully" is okay if there is no suitable single word or short phrase.

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    'Undocumented' is neutral. People are not 'illegal', nor is it illegal to immigrate. They require documentation of citizenship (everyone does) which they don't have, or are avoiding to stay 'off the grid'. The 'illegal' part is about bureaucracy. There are also people who overstay their visas, they had proper documentation and entered legally but are now ignoring the exit date by going 'off the grid'. Hence it all comes down to 'showing papers' (to work, to board a plane, to establish residence)... You can make something up, like 'unregistered'..., but 'undocumented' is the same word.
    – wetcircuit
    Commented Sep 15, 2022 at 23:47
  • @wetcircuit I know "undocumented" is literally true, but conservatives often perceive it as biased. I'm trying to avoid the perception of bias, not just actual bias. Also, it is illegal to enter the US without documentation or remain after said documentation expires, so a case could be made that "illegal" is literally true as well, but it is also [seen as] biased.
    – Someone
    Commented Sep 15, 2022 at 23:49
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    @wetcircuit by that definition of illegal, most copyright infringement and many traffic infractions are not illegal. "Illegal" and "criminal" are not synonyms; crimes are a subset of illegal acts. There are laws prohibiting undocumented entry or overstaying of visas; therefore, it is illegal.
    – Someone
    Commented Sep 16, 2022 at 2:10
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    @wetcircuit as an analogy, suppose I do not have a driver's license, but I drive a car anyway. You could call what I'm doing "undocumented driving" or "illegal driving." I am an "undocumented driver" because I do not have documentation giving me permission to drive; I am also an "illegal driver" because, although I as a person am not "illegal," my being a driver is illegal. The same arguments apply if you replace "driver"/"driving" with "immigrant"/"immigration" and "driver's license" with "visa."
    – Someone
    Commented Sep 16, 2022 at 5:03
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    @wetcircuit Illegal Immigrant is a perfectly reasonable and descriptive term. An Immigrant? Yes, and one of the subset of immigrants who have done so illegally. It's stubborn and likely intentional misunderstanding not to get that. "Undocumented" is biased in its intentionally neutralizing language trying to soften and muddle a clear description (like saying Minor Attracted Person instead of pedophile).
    – Jedediah
    Commented Sep 16, 2022 at 13:17

4 Answers 4

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Is there a way to refer to undocumented/illegal immigrants that is seen as unbiased by both liberals and conservatives?

No.

The louder segments of liberals and conservatives are both heavily caught up in their own biases, and will consider anything that deviates too much from their own frame of reference as biased.

It's true for most people that they consider themselves and their peer-group the norm. But when you're actually an outlier yourself then the distance to people on the other side is much bigger than it is for the average Joe/Jane. In this case, I doubt there is acceptable middle ground for them.

To illustrate that, here is a picture:

three bell curves colored to illustrate that both left-wing and right-wing views exclude the middle ground as biased

If they felt less strongly on the issue, then maybe the "acceptable" area for both extremes might overlap in the middle, and there might be some term to agree on. But I think in the current political landscape the best you can hope for is a term that both sides consider equally (but oppositely) biased.

Another approach you could take, is to look at a chart of media bias, pick a media-company in the middle (e.g. BBC), and see what term they use (BBC uses both, but "illegal immigrants" more often, based on google search hits). You will probably still be accused by one side or the other of using a biased term.

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    Perhaps it would be better to say "undocumented/illegal immigrants" or something like that, to show that I'm trying to avoid bias even if it's unavoidable?
    – Someone
    Commented Sep 16, 2022 at 13:57
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First consider whether you trying to describe legal status, intent, or living situation.

"Illegal immigrant" could be correct to describe someone convicted in a court of law of a criminal violation of immigration law.

"Economic refugee" captures the reality of people who cross the border fleeing systematic poverty.

"Displaced persons" and "refugees" could be those fleeing a war zone or natural disaster. They might have violated border crossing rules, but is the legality of their situation what you're trying to describe, or the reason they are where they are?

If often takes more than one or two words to be accurate. "People who cross the border in secret and hope to gain legal immigration status" is more accurate than "illegal immigrant" or "undocumented migrant."

"Unpermitted resident" might not be used much, but is a neutral way of describing someone living in a country without official permission.

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  • Thank you! "Unpermitted resident" is exactly the type of term I was looking for.
    – Someone
    Commented Sep 30, 2022 at 19:51
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Visa-overstays

Most undocumented immigrants arrive on a valid visa (tourist, student, etc) and then do not leave when the visa expires. In situations where this is the case, visa-overstay would be a term that accurately describes their status, and currently does not have a political connotation.

Asylum Seekers

Another category of migrant that is often involved in "illegal immigration" discussions is asylum seekers. When someone presents themselves at the border as an asylum seeker, the US is required by law to evaluate their claim and given them a resident status if their claim is verified.

Since it can take years to evaluate the claim, asylum seekers often live in the country for extended periods without the assurance that they can, indeed, remain indefinitely.

It is perfectly legal to apply for asylum, and calling an asylum seeker an "illegal immigrant" is simply false.

Other

These examples are simply being more specific about a person's status. There are likely other cases where this strategy could be used, if the immigrant's status is known.

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Almost anything you use will be abused. When my grandfather entered the USA from Italy, he came into New York City, and at the time, immigrants were allowed into the country without any passport, birth certificate, or any other proof of identification or origin. His entry document was stamped "WOP", for "With Out Papers".

Then WOP became a derogatory term for Italian immigrants.

I would suggest "Foreign National Without Permission" (they did not get permission to be in the USA.)

None of the Founding Fathers had any intent for immigration to be difficult, and certainly would not have jailed anybody for just wanting to be an American. They did not "vet" them, or demand they speak English, or any other such requirement.

The criminalization of immigration was never their intent; nor were "papers". That is why they established that anybody born in the USA is automatically a citizen, without restriction.

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    The history of racial epithets is actually a quite fascinating thing, and illustrates your point well. I'd list examples, but I'd rather not get kicked off the site.
    – DWKraus
    Commented Sep 16, 2022 at 20:31

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