On illegal immigration and illegal alien

published Oct 29, 2006, last modified Jun 26, 2013

Hello! Today, we'll be deconstructing a particularly contentious term, using nothing but language analysis. I'll state the conclusion first: there's no such thing as an illegal alien, even in the face of aliens breaking immigration law. Interested as to how I arrived to this conclusion? Then keep reading to find out why.

Legality is a property of acts, not of people, just as much as moisture level is a property of objects, not of ideas. This isn't exactly rocket science, and most dictionaries will support this plain understanding of the word legal, not to mention attorneys themselves.

Thus, by definition:

  • unauthorized acts, such as crossing a border in a manner not permitted by law, may be illegal acts, and even crimes; but
  • people cannot be ilegal

In other words, the phenomenon we refer to as illegal immigration can definitely be called "illegal immigration", because it's immigration and it's illegal. But extending those words to label people who commit illegal immigration "illegal aliens" is not, I think, even a "feature" supported by the English language. It's a perversion of concept.

Even if you're breaking 25 laws at the same time, that doesn't make you an "illegal" whatever, it just makes you a federal criminal, felon, or trespasser. Not illegal.

I also want to make two small (and politically biased) contributions here:

  • The compound term "illegal alien" most definitely exists and was invented to promote hatred and fear of foreigners (xenophobia). Anyone who disagrees is freely welcome to disagree with me -- just leave it as a comment. But, if you think I'm wrong, that I already think you live in la-la-land, so you better make sure to write up a knowledgeable response.
  • A similar perversion of concepts happens in the domain of ideas: It's just the same when interested parties equate "downloading MP3" with "robbing". No matter how much information monopolists would want us to believe that copying music is robbing, it just will never be, because for a robbery to take place, the original owner of the property must no longer have it in his possession.