Why We Should Outlaw “Illegal”

By Bill Frelick  Published 24 June, 2014

It makes no more sense to call someone an “illegal migrant” than an “illegal person.”

Despite that, the term pops up again and again in the mainstream media. The New York Times recently reported on the “surge of illegal migrants from Central America across the South Texas border.” The BBC and other European media outlets are similarly reporting on “illegal migrants” in the Mediterranean and at the EU’s external borders.

The term “illegal migrant” implies that a particular event in someone’s life, such as irregularly crossing an international border or overstaying a visa, irrevocably taints that person’s character as illegitimate or criminal. In fact, unauthorized migration is a civil, not a criminal offense, contrary to what news stories frequently imply.

The term “illegal” also reinforces prejudices about nationals of a particular country or persons of a particular race. It incorrectly suggests people crossing borders have no rights. That’s simply not true: both domestic and international law provide specific protections and rights for migrants, including rights to due legal process, to seek asylum, and the right not to be arbitrarily detained.

For all these reasons we recommend the use of terms that more aptly capture the situation of these people, such as “undocumented immigrants” or “irregular migrants.” On Friday, the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants issued a leaflet that included an alternative lexicon of more accurate and humanizing terms for migrants. The United Nations General Assembly, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), the European Commission, the International Organization for Migration, and major media groups have already adopted or issued similar recommendations. As these groups have noted, use of the term “illegal” for migrants and other persons may be inaccurate and is most certainly dehumanizing.

By dropping the “illegal” tag, the venerable New York Times would not only bring its reporting in line with international practice – and its own guidelines – but would also reflect sensitivity for the difficult circumstances of migrants and to their dignity as human beings.

About the Author

Bill Frelick, director of Human Rights Watch's refugee program, monitors, investigates, and documents human rights abuses against refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced persons, and advocates for the rights and humanitarian needs of all categories of forcibly displaced persons around the world.

Before joining Human Rights Watch, Frelick directed Amnesty International USA's refugee program and the US Committee for Refugees (USCR), which he served for 18 years. He was the editor of USCR's annual World Refugee Survey and monthly Refugee Reports. Frelick has traveled to refugee sites throughout the world and is widely published. He taught in the Middle East from 1979-1983 and was co-coordinator of the Asian Center of Clergy and Laity Concerned from 1976-1979. Frelick has a B.A. from Oberlin College and an M.A. from Columbia University.

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Article Photo: May Day Immigration March By Jonathan McIntosh

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