The Problem With The Term ‘Undocumented’

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Something happened in the Massachusetts House of Representatives on Wednesday.


Depends on your news source.

Many reported that the House passed a bill to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. A few other sources, including NewBostonPost, reported that the House passed a bill to allow illegal immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses.

It’s a key distinction made in journalism these days. Liberal news outlets tend to use the term undocumented. (The Associated Press style guide tells reporters to use the term undocumented.)

Yet “undocumented” makes little sense.

Here’s why.

The people referred to in these stories are in the United States but do not have legal permission to be in the country. In other words:  They live in the country illegally.

Many of them are visa overstays. Some took a plane here and never came home. Others crossed the border illegally from either Mexico or Canada. 

That doesn’t make them bad people. A lot of them are, presumably, good people who want a better life for their families in this country. However, they’re not in the country legally.

They’re also not undocumented. Many have plenty of documents.

Just none that makes their presence in this country legal.

Jackie Vimo, policy analyst for the National Immigration Law Center, supports allowing illegal immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, as NewBostonPost reported in November 2020. But she also says the term “undocumented” isn’t accurate.

Here is what she said:


The reality is that the word undocumented is actually a misnomer. Most people are not actually undocumented. Most of our friends and family who are undocumented can tell you themselves that they have all kinds of documentation passports, school IDs, all kinds of different documents. They just don’t happen to have state-issued driver’s licenses in Massachusetts.


Her assessment is correct. 

People from other countries have documentation. Birth certificates, driver’s licenses, and passports exist in other countries. Most countries have universal health care, so residents (or former residents) of those countries have another form of ID:  their health card. In some countries, including Canada, these health cards even have a picture of the person. 

Roughly half of America’s illegal immigrants are visa overstays. One needs to provide documentation, including a valid passport, to be eligible to obtain a visa to come to the United States.

Undocumented people exist. However, they’re not usually the types of people who can make the trek to the United States.

North Sentinel Island, for example, may have some undocumented people; it’s an island off the coast of India that has an isolated indigenous tribe that attacks people who try to visit. There are also uncontacted tribes that live in the jungles of Brazil and Peru. They probably don’t have documentation, either. It’s also plausible that people who live in rural villages in poor, developing nations don’t have documentation.

However, the United States isn’t dealing with an influx of North Sentinel Islanders.

The term illegal immigrant isn’t a symbol of hate. It’s accurate — and a better term than “undocumented,” which is largely inaccurate.

“Undocumented” isn’t a description so much as a virtue signaler. The news sources that use “undocumented” are telling you something not about the subject they’re supposedly covering but about their exquisite attention to refined social etiquette.

Yet news is supposed to be about informing, not about euphemisms.


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