Words matter in immigration debate

Undocumented immigrant vs illegal immigrant vs illegal alien

To say there’s a chasm as wide as the Rio Grande between both sides of the immigration debate would be an understatement. The conversation about compromise is a non-starter because neither side can even agree on what terms to use.

US Attorney for Massachusetts Andrew Lelling, in a recent sit-down with CommonWealth, acknowledged his office is ramping up identifying defendants by their nationalities if they are immigrants who commit a crime in the country. And Lelling said he refuses to call them undocumented, the term favored by immigrant advocates, because what they have done is illegal, much like carrying an illegal handgun, “not an undocumented handgun.”

“I think word choice is often a political statement,” Lelling said. “The term undocumented immigrant strikes me as a consciously politicized term. It’s a euphemism… So I don’t use the term undocumented immigrant where advocates in this area might. I say illegal immigrant because that strikes me as more literally correct.”

Bristol Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, a strident supporter of President Trump’s immigration policies, and Marion Davis of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA), joined The Codcast for an impassioned discussion over the tensions of words in the hot-button debate.

“Human beings are not illegal,” said Davis, explaining that immigration advocates view the term as dehumanizing and offensive.

Hodgson said “of course” the people themselves are not illegal but said their actions are. He described them as “illegal aliens,” a term increasingly favored by the Trump administration. Hodgson said immigrants by definition are here legally, hence his choice of aliens.

It appears to be the phraseology the Department of Justice wants US Attorney press offices around the country to use when identifying foreign-born defendants who are in the country illegally. CNN recently ran a story based on an email they obtained showing the Justice Department has instructed press offices to use “undocumented aliens” in their press releases.

“The word ‘undocumented’ is not based in US code and should not be used to describe someone’s illegal presence in the country,” the email from Washington to all the offices said. It also said that even those who are in the country legally should be identified by their country of citizenship, not their residence.

Davis and Hodgson differed on the public perception of identifying someone by his or her nationality. Davis said it gives the false impression the country is being overrun by criminal immigrants, something she said studies show is far from the case.

But Hodgson said “it’s not something to celebrate” that immigrants who are here illegally commit crime at a smaller rate than US citizens.

Meet the Author

Jack Sullivan

Senior Investigative Reporter, CommonWealth

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is a veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

A Boston native, Jack has lived in Massachusetts all his life. He was a major in English and history with a minor in political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A father and grandfather, he lives in Plymouth with his wife, Susan.

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is a veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

A Boston native, Jack has lived in Massachusetts all his life. He was a major in English and history with a minor in political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A father and grandfather, he lives in Plymouth with his wife, Susan.

“That’s a crime that would not have been committed” if they weren’t here at all, Hodgson said. Hodgson added that advocates should explain their reasoning to “angel moms and dads,” the term coined by conservatives and immigration opponents to describe families of victims of deadly crimes committed by an immigrant here illegally.

It’s another loaded term in the fevered debate with no end of words.