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In line with international practice, there are a number of accurate ways to describe foreigners who have entered a country’s territory without permission and/or who do not have regular immigration status. These include “undocumented migrants” for people who have no documents rather than fraudulent or expired ones, “unauthorized migrants”[1] or “irregular immigrants” or “irregular migrants,” the accepted way to reflect the fact that they have entered the country by way of irregular immigration.[2]

Terms such as “illegal immigrants,” Illegal aliens,” “illegal migrants” and “illegals” are problematic for several reasons:

  1. Such terms are dehumanizing and degrading, implying at worst that the people concerned are in some way inherently criminal or illegitimate or at best that a particular event in someone’s life, such as irregularly crossing an international border, means their character has been irrevocably tainted;
  2. Such terms are prejudicial and reinforce pre-existing negative attitudes toward foreign nationals or persons of a particular ethnicity, regardless of immigration status;[3]
  3. Such terms fuel the view that such people have limited or no rights, when in fact they have a wide range of rights under international law as long as they are on the concerned country’s territory, including due legal process to challenge their removal, the right to seek asylum, and the right not to be arbitrarily detained;

The Australian and Canadian Refugee Councils and UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, helpfully elaborate on some of these concerns.[4] On June 20, the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM) issued a leaflet on accurate terminology as part of its Undocumented Not Illegal campaign.

A number of media groups have discontinued the use of the term “illegal” immigrants and related terminology, including the Associated Press,[5] the Guardian,[6] the San Francisco Chronicle,[7] ABC and Univision,[8] and Ireland’s National Union of Journalists.[9] Other groups include CNN, the Los Angeles Times, San Antonio Express News, Miami Herald and NBC News.


[1] The International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families uses the term “irregular” or “undocumented” to describe the situation of migrant workers who were not authorized to enter, stay, and work in a given country or who have overstayed.

[3] One study in the US has shown that use of the term “illegal immigrants” leads to negative stereotyping of Latinos. National Hispanic Media Coalition, “The Impact of Media Stereotypes on Opinions and Attitudes Towards Latinos,” September 2012,

[4] Canadian Council for Refugees, “Talking About Refugees and Immigrants: A Glossary of Terms,”; Refugee Council of Australia, “Stop using ‘illegal’ label: 138 groups appeal to PM,” November 2013,; UNHCR, “The Facts: Asylum in the UK,”

[5] Peter Sterne, “No more ‘illegal immigrants’,” Columbia Journalism Review, April 2013,; Andrew Beaujon and Taylor Miller Thomas, “AP changes style on ‘illegal immigrant’,”, April 2013,

[6] Amanda Holpuch, “New York Times public editor won’t advocate against ‘illegal immigrant’,” Guardian, October 2, 2012,

[7] Taylor Miller Thomas, “San Francisco Chronicle changes style on ‘illegal immigrant’,”, May 21 2013,

[8] Cristina Constantini, “The Times Is Behind The Times, ”, October 14, 2013,

[9] “Reporting on Refugees: Guidelines by & for Journalists,” NUJ Ireland/UNHCR,

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