Why We Need to Stop Using the Term “Illegal Immigrant”


As the Senate recently passed long awaited immigration overhaul and the bill now heads to the house, the long-standing national discourse on the issue of immigration will likely heat up again. As we participate in these discussions my hope is that we, especially Christians tasked with peacemaking and reconciling, will find ways to build bridges instead of erecting walls. As a first step in this bridge building, I pray that once and for all, we will stop using the term “illegal immigrant”.

Here is why I feel Christians need to stop using the term “illegal immigrant”:

The term “illegal immigrant” is a misleading and dishonest term, which violates the 9th commandment.


The term “illegal immigrant” lends one to believe that an individual is currently doing something illegal, or that their presence in our country is an ongoing, illegal act. In regards to undocumented workers, this is simply not the case. The crime which undocumented workers commit is a violation of “8 U.S.C. § 1325: Entry of Alien at improper time or place”, a federal misdemeanor. Their crime is crossing the border at the improper time and place; however they are not currently doing anything that is illegal.

Therefore, using this term that has a less-than-honest connotation, is a violation of the commandment to not “bear false witness against our neighbors”.

The term “illegal” singles out those who committed one, specific, federal misdemeanor, but is never applied to other violations.

Crossing the border at an improper time and an improper place isn’t the only federal misdemeanor, yet we don’t call anyone else “illegal”. Other federal misdemeanors include: a first time failure to pay child support (18 U.S.C. § 228), refusing to speak to a census worker (13 U.S.C. § 221a), the unlawful transportation of dentures (18 U.S.C. § 1821), transporting fireworks into a state where they are not permitted (18 U.S.C. § 836), mutilating a US coin (18 U.S.C. § 333), defrauding a 4-H Club Member (18 U.S.C. § 916), and using the name or likeness of “Smokey the Bear” without authorization (18 U.S.C. § 711). (more can be found here)

The Apostle Paul tells us: “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–of whom I am the worst.” (1 Tim 1:15) This means that as Christians, our humility should extend to the point that we view our own transgressions to be more serious than that of others.

In my lifetime, I have: defaced currency (I crushed a penny in a vice to see what would happen), illegally transported fireworks, and a host of other things that are probably against the law somewhere. However, no one calls me an “illegal”; they just call me “Ben”. It would be morally wrong for me to single out and treat differently, a group of people who have committed a federal misdemeanor, when I have also broken those same set of laws.

Even the most egregious criminals in our society are not called “illegals”, so why do we reserve this term just for people who are in the country without documentation? It is because:

The term “illegal immigrant” has morphed into a racial epithet.

Let’s just be honest for a second- regardless of where you fall in the immigration debate, we should be authentic and admit that when we say “illegal immigrant” we’re not exactly referring to white Europeans. Whether or not this term has non-racially charged origins, the meaning of language in this case has morphed so that it now has connotations of racial minorities, and is offensive to many.

As Lawrence Downes from the New York Times once wrote, “illegal” is often “a code word for racial and ethnic hatred”. One need not use the word “illegal” in many circles before you see the genuine nastiness and hatred the term often evokes.

Don’t think it’s a racially offensive term? Fine, but I’m telling you that many racial minorities receive it that way. On that factor alone, as Christians we ought willingly stop using this term based upon the biblical instructions to: be kind and tenderhearted toward one another (Eph 4:32), and to willingly refrain from behaviors which offend others (1 Cor 8:13).

The term “illegal immigrant” cultivates hostility, animosity and mistrust against our neighbors.

Yesterday our local paper the Sun Journal posted an article regarding a cash reward for information leading to the arrest of the individual who recently defaced a picture of the US flag, as seen here:


What was one of the first comments posted under the story? It was this:

Screen shot 2013-06-27 at 8.48.41 PM

Using offensive terms for racial minorities breeds the type of animosity and mistrust, seen here. We, as Christians, are called to be “ministers of reconciliation” (as I wrote about here) but when we use terms such as “illegal immigrant” it counteracts the type of cultural healing we are supposed engage in. There are nearly one hundred verses in the Bible commanding believers to care for the immigrants among us (legal or undocumented), and we can start caring by refusing to use language which breeds animosity, mistrust, hatred and violence. For example, as we have watched the illegal immigrant debate ramp up in national discourse, we have also seen an increase in hate crimes against Hispanics as well as an increase in hate groups, as documented by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

We need to realize that the language we use, matters. Language can be used for healing and restoration or can be used destructively. Regardless of our intentions, the use of this term has resulted in a negative impact on our culture. As Jesus followers, we must be working towards the opposite end: the healing of culture.

We cannot claim to be “loving our neighbors” if we are using pejoratives to reference them.

The term “illegal immigrant” is dehumanizing.

Several years ago I worked for an organization that specialized in developing employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities. I remember in those first few weeks, much of the training was geared toward re-wiring my brain to always refer to an individual as a “person first”. I had not consciously realized that all too often in society we do not refer to individuals as “people first”,  but often reference them in ways that intentionally or unintentionally dehumanize them.

I recently read an online press release about a family down south who had just adopted two children from Africa. I almost spit my coffee all over my iMac when I read the headline: “Couple Adopts HIV Children”.


They were beautiful children with many great qualities; I have no idea on earth why anyone would want to refer to them as “HIV Children”. The term set aside their humanity and gave them the primary label of “HIV” which caused readers to primarily see them in light of their HIV status, instead of their status as human beings.

The term “illegal” is no different. It dehumanizes because it causes us to view another individual primarily through the light of something they have done, instead of what they really are: human beings.

My friends, my fellow countrymen…

 This isn’t a matter of being politically correct; this is a matter of exemplifying the love of Christ by using speech which edifies instead of speech which tears down.

As Christians, we need to start asking ourselves: is my attitude on this issue motivated by political beliefs and nationalistic attitudes, or is it motivated by a loyalty to the Kingdom of God and the way of Jesus?

Regardless of where we fall on the issue of immigration reform, we should be willing to adjust our language so that we do not speak falsely against our neighbors, so that we do not use language which is divisive, and so that we can contribute to the healing of culture- instead contributing to a culture of resentment and hostility.

Please: join me in embracing our common humanity by no longer using language which drives a wedge between us.





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About Benjamin L. Corey

Benjamin L. Corey is an Anabaptist author, speaker, and blogger. He is a two-time graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (Theology & Missiology), is currently a 3rd year Doctor of Missiology student (a subset of practical theology) at Fuller Seminary, and is a member of the Phi Alpha Chi Honors Society. His first book, Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus, is available now at your local bookstore. He is also a contributor for Time, Sojourners, Red Letter Christians, Evangelicals for Social Action, Mennonite World Review, has been a guest on Huffington Post Live, and is one of the CANA Initiators. Ben is also a syndicated author for MennoNerds, a collective of Mennonite and Anabaptist writers. Ben is also co-host of That God Show with Matthew Paul Turner. Ben lives in Auburn, Maine with his wife Tracy and his daughter Johanna.

You can also follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

  • Preacherzson

    I totally dig your writing because it gives me an access point to the avant-guarde Christianity as I push to explore the paradoxes in my understanding of the faith, national and personal identity, purpose in life, and perspective that will shape the way in which I interact with, describe, teach about, and unveil the world to my kids. Obviously, as I read some of your posts I love what you’re saying. Other times as I read I your posts I think you’re nuts. On yet other occasions I read your posts and think you’re nuts and I love what you’re saying. This time as I read your post I loved what you were saying, but it drove ME nuts. That quality of agitating me to point of purposefully attempting articulation is one of the main reasons I enjoy reading your blog. So, IF the point is to elucidate the “illegal immigrant” (IA) moniker as an unfairly and inequitably applied term, which is thereby a pejorative epithet and non-loving, un-Kingdom-like (can you use 2 hyphens in a word?) speech-action towards our neighbors without papers, then why appeal to U.S. legal code?

    I presume I kind of know some of the reasoning behind appealing to U.S. code:

    • it’s the de facto governing authority in the national immigration discussion

    • traditional/conservative Christianity identifies closely with the concrete, discreet codification of right and wrong within US legal code.

    • It seems to make a defensible reference, like proof-texting of a sort.

    Presumably, the main audience of the post is those who are on the cusp of leaving that swatch of Christendom that ranges from traditional to fundamental in order to explore radically following Jesus by getting back to the roots of what Jesus did- finally putting feet to those little rubber bands we all used to wear. And as someone still rooted in that population, I know it’s so easy for me to get tangled up in the structures of US law when I move to eschew the common chauvinistic identity and corresponding misplaced allegiance to the Constitution and country [that you so aptly previously referenced in another post] for my citizenship in heaven (Phil. 3:20) and ambassadorship here on earth (2 Cor. 5:20/Eph. 3:20). US law is one of the most prominent and hallowed vessels of right and wrong in the American conservative/tradition/fundamental/religious psyches. It kind of sucks, in that even those like yourself who are past that point of separation still have to accord US law it’s unduly superlative moral authority by acknowledging it in a primary position. I get that. However, I’d still contend (especially in view of the exchange with R. Gibble) that priming the discussion with a section that depends on parsing legalese to create a Biblical injury to “the sojourner amongst us” (SAUs?) massively devalues the main point of the post, and in this particular case almost torpedoes it.

    Although it is true that SAU commit the point-in-time infraction “improper entry by an alien” (8 USC 1325) it seems inaccurate to decry the “IA” label as falsely implying that SAU are “currently doing anything that is illegal”. Other sections in title 8 list additional offenses including not reporting one’s address to the authorities (1305), “willful failure to register” (1306), working [1324 (h) (3)), or “Present in violation of law” -a sweeping catch-all (1227 (1)(B))- that make continued unauthorized residing a crime. Likewise, the contention that “IA” is “not exactly referring to white Europeans” is accurate, but there’s also a statistical implication other than racial prejudice. The Department of Homeland Security Immigration publication for 2002-2012 (http://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/immigration-statistics/yearbook/2011/ois_yb_2011.pdf) groups by country of origin the number of all UA caught in enforcement actions per year. Since 2008, the top 6 sources have accounted for 93-96% of all enforcement actions, and all six are geographically south of the United States with about 80% of that number originating from one country south of the U.S. border. While that doesn’t preclude the racially prejudiced aspect around the “IA” label, it makes it a tough sell as a lead for the contention that the “IA” label is being unfairly associated with non-Caucasian groups. Additionally, 1101 (a) (3) & (15) equate the terms “alien” and “immigrant”, and 8 USC 1324 (h) even coins the term “unauthorized alien” which isn’t so far of a leap from “IA”. So if the target audience is those on the cusp, I’m not sure leading with a legal discussion creates a vector towards changing one’s perspective.

    Were I here just to disagree with your post by expressing a conservative position toward U.S. immigration policy it wouldn’t REALLY matter anyway to you or to me what either one of us thinks the law says. But that’s not my intent. I think this area is one where church can insert itself into culture, but as an alternative authority separate from governmental authority- like the Red Cross for lack of a better example. However well-intended, appealing to the law as the basis for the introductory Biblical problem seems to place the point in contention on precarious footing. With the exception of the reference to the Apostle Paul setting the example of considering our own transgressions greater than those of others, I struggled with the first two sections because they seemed like straw men, which I found unfortunate because the back 2/3 of the post is more than adequate to carry the argument. It brought to mind those 3 satellites that just got blown up when that Russian rocket malfunctioned. There was nothing wrong with the satellites; they were just perched atop a vehicle designed to get them off the ground that was defective to the point of being destructive to the payload. (http://www.cnn.com/2013/07/02/world/europe/russia-rocket-explosion) And that’s what drove me nuts as I was reading because the rest of it was SO good. The paragraph that began by conceding whether or not “IA” is a racial epithet in order to focus on how the term is perceived, man…..that’s where it took off for me! That’s where the disparity between the inadequacy of the legal solution and elegance of the Kingdom way began to blossom.