Policy brief

Words matter: ‘illegal’, ‘irregular’, ‘unauthorized’, ‘undocumented’


François Crépeau and Maja Vezmar

The stigmatizing language used for migrants by many politicians, policy makers, media outlets and other stakeholders in the public discourse is often inappropriate, as it conveys a connotation of criminality or other social ills about persons – migrants – who are essentially neither criminals nor responsible for unemployment, the pandemic or rising feelings of insecurity. Migrants should be distinguished from the real criminals in the undocumented migration business, who quite often prey on their precarity.

Language shapes people’s perceptions. Discriminatory language in reference to undocumented migrants in the public discourse leads to perceptions and actions which negatively impact their daily realities. States may determine that different paths to undocumented status can carry different legal consequences and they may adopt different technical terms in their policies, in order to distinguish between the categories. What is crucial is that, in the public discourse – which is the one that the public perceives – the choice of terms and expressions be not stigmatising.

This is certainly the reason why the terms “illegal alien” and “assimilation” were replaced by “undocumented noncitizen” and “integration” in some official public communications (Durkee, 2021). Indeed, the expression “undocumented migrant” represents, in the common language, a broad and fluid category which is more descriptive than value-laden, as will be explained below. Over the years, international organizations have been encouraging the use of a more neutral and humanizing language in the public discourse