Breaking down ‘illegal immigration’ terminology

A demonstrator that opposes illegal immigration, left, shouts at immigration supporters, Friday, July 4, 2014, outside a U.S. Border Patrol station in Murrieta, Calif. Demonstrators on both sides of the immigration debate had gathered where the agency was foiled earlier this week in an attempt to bus in and process some of the immigrants who have flooded the Texas border with Mexico. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The issue of illegal immigration continues to cover national headlines. After reading articles and talking with friends and coworkers, it’s easy to hear a lot of terms trying to personify an international issue.

You have probably heard the words “immigrant,” “migrant,” “alien” or maybe even “refugee” to describe people who come into the U.S. illegally. We wanted to look at what these terms specifically mean.

Merriam-Webster dictionary describes the word ‘immigrant‘ as “a person who comes to a country to take up permanent residence.”

The word ‘migrant‘ means “a person who goes from one place to another especially to find work.” With many of those crossing into the United States being children, some may question whether it is fair to group children among those looking for work.

Alien‘ means “from another country” or “relating, belonging, or owing allegiance to another country or government,” which describes our current situation.

Many coming to the U.S. say they are not just looking for work, but for safety. Many say they had to leave tough conditions between warring factions in their countries, which could lead some to call those crossing the border ‘refugees.’ That is defined as “someone who has been forced to leave a country because of war or for religious or political reasons.”

Earlier this month, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees urged U.S. officials to treat children and families crossing the border as refugees instead of migrants. At the time, UNHCR officials said they hoped it would put pressure on American and Mexican officials to accept thousands of people not eligible for asylum.

As journalists, when we have questions on how to make our writing style consistent with other journalists. Most newsrooms, including KXAN, use on the Associated Press Stylebook for use in web stories.

The Stylebook answers questions from how to abbreviate states to how to define people crossing the border illegally.

In April 2013 the Associated Press decided to stop using the term “illegal immigrant” to describe a person crossing into one nation from another illegally. In a blog post, they explain: “‘illegal’ should describe only an action, such as living in or immigrating to a country illegally.”

Instead they recommend using “undocumented immigrant” to talk about people crossing the border and “illegal immigration” to describe the unlawful nature of a person’s actions or governmental policy.

We want to know what you think. How can we, as Americans, best describe people crossing our border with Mexico illegally? Leave your comments below. provides commenting to allow for constructive discussion on the stories we cover. In order to comment here, you acknowledge you have read and agreed to our Terms of Service. Users who violate these terms, including use of vulgar language or racial slurs, will be banned. If you see an inappropriate comment, please flag it for our moderators to review.

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