The Case for “Undocumented” and Against “Illegal”

Jose Vilson Jose

No One Is Illegal Mural

This afternoon, I posted a status on my Facebook, asking:

Where do you see the difference between calling a certain sector of our society “illegal immigrants” or “undocumented workers.”

I’ll remove the names, but the answers varied. Some postulated that there is no difference; getting one’s legalization forms “or papers” is what’s important. There’s an argument there, and I’ll discuss that later.

I agreed with most of my friends who said that “illegal immigrants” is terse and inaccurate whereas “undocumented workers” is appropriate and humanizing. “Illegal” is the adjective for “immigrants,” making the immigrant in said statement illegal, in action and person. “Undocumented” is the adjective for “workers,” making the worker in this case undocumented, or lacking in the proper documentation to work in the United States. Plus, “illegal immigrant” suggests that the immigrant intentionally broke the law with no regard for the consequences. The term “undocumented workers” suggests that there could be a number of reasons why the worker does not have the right papers, and should lead people to ask why someone who’s working in this country has to do so without proper paperwork.

If someone’s “illegal,” then they’re easier to arrest, deport, kill or all three. Furthermore, it tells any observers that this human will be instantly downgraded from their status as another citizen of this Earth, and is worthy of losing his or her humanity because they are against the law. It simultaneously infers that any additional parties responsible for any services they perform can easily dispense them into the hands of the law once they deem these “illegal immigrants” unnecessary to their enterprises. It creates a stigma for anyone who’s needed to go through mounds of paperwork to gain employment, even those who’ve historically had to fight employers just for the opportunities. If “illegal immigrants” get legal jobs that don’t pay legal wages, don’t provide any security, and don’t allow members to come together and form a union under the provisions of the Constitution, then just how “illegal” is illegal?

And there is where I find the term “undocumented” more suitable for the group of workers who, after escaping severe conditions in their own countries, decided to come to the United States, risk life and limb to either send money back to their home country or find a way to settle in an illusively better situation. It dually infers that these people are working (that great American virtue of hard work) and that they simply haven’t gotten the right documentation yet. Said in piecemeal, it’s innocuous enough. Said as a whole, it makes you wonder a little more about them. Who’s not documented? Why are they not documented? Are they hindered from applying for work through the mainstream form?

Then things start clicking for you and hopefully you draw the same conclusions I do, and that I read in Chacon and Davis’ No One Is Illegal, a thorough (if not a bit long-winded) book about the history and present of immigration over the last two centuries. The terms are so disparate that one could put a river through them. Without understanding the progression from insults to technical terms, and how these terms place responsibility on specific people, we can’t actually see progress on this issue.

Words matter.

Yes, one can argue that it matters little whether we use the term “illegal immigrant” or “undocumented worker” because corporate entities bent on using these ladies and gentlemen as their cheap labor will still treat them as indentured servants. Yet, for people struggling against these structures, the difference is so crucial. It’s the difference between “alien” and “migrant,” for instance. Then again, people are so quick to blame people who they deem below their level when undocumented workers’ work makes so much of our lives possible, whether we like it or not.

But that’s what the corporations and government officials in many countries including this one love: some good distractions and an ignorant mass who’ll squabble about people who are ultimately powerless. And that should be illegal.

Jose, who’s rarely impressed …