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undocumented immigrant / unauthorized immigrant / non-status immigrant

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If a description of someone’s immigration status is relevant to your coverage, the terms preferred by many legal and support organizations are “undocumented immigrant,” “unauthorized immigrant,” or “non-status immigrant.” The term “undocumented immigrant” appeared in a US Supreme Court opinion for the first time in 2009, authored by Justice Sonia Sotomayor. 

The term “illegal” as a noun can be misleading and reductive, since a person cannot inherently be “illegal.” Immigration advocates strongly object to the term “illegal immigrant,” which they argue is dehumanizing, has racist connotations, and can suggest criminality. Some critics of the term also point out that “immigrant” can imply legality, so the term “illegal immigrant” is confusing. 

In national and international law, the term “alien” is synonymous with “noncitizen” and is used in legal documents, particularly in legislation and official immigration forms, but many immigrant rights groups also consider it a dehumanizing term. 

As of April 2021, US federal immigration agencies began replacing “alien” and “illegal alien” with “noncitizen” and “undocumented noncitizen” in all internal communications and external correspondence. Since the terms “alien” and “illegal alien” are now outdated, they may be best reserved for direct quotes from people or legislation. 

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Undocumented immigrant, unauthorized immigrant, and non-status immigrant are preferred by many advocacy organizations to refer to someone who is not a US citizen or national (over a term such as illegal immigrant, which has racist connotations and can imply criminality). “Alien” is used in some legal documents, but this is usually considered othering or dehumanizing.