Image by K. Ho

Social Justice Synonyms #16: “Illegal Immigrant”

Welcome to the sixteenth segment of Social Justice Synonyms, a column at The Talon that discusses harmful and oppressive language embedded in our culture and provides ways to unlearn this language.

This week’s term is illegal immigrant.

This piece pulls from the work of Harsha Walia, a local South Asian activist, whose book Undoing Border Imperialism talks about immigrant rights from within the transnational analysis of  “capitalism, labour exploitation, settler colonialism, state-building and racialized empire” [1].

“No one is illegal! Canada is illegal!” the crowd chanted in unison, voices reverberating from under a phalanx of umbrellas, as the rain accompanied those who had gathered to demonstrate at the 7th Annual March Against Racism that took place in Vancouver last year. In these seven words lie the essence of why the term “illegal immigrant” is all of harmful, dehumanizing and deeply flawed.

Here on Turtle Island (or North America, as it’s largely known), some people use the phrase “illegal immigrants” to refer to those who have crossed the (colonial) borders of the American and Canadian states in a way that violates the immigration laws of these settler colonial states. On lands that were settled through European colonialism, where land was taken away from Indigenous peoples by any means necessary, and where the result of this history still affects Indigenous people today, why aren’t white settlers on Turtle Island ever called ‘illegal immigrants’?

This discrepancy reveals that the term is racializing at its core, as it is levied largely against racialized people. More specifically, it has become synonymous with “Mexican” or “Latino”, as evidenced by its everyday colloquial use, as well as its use in pop culture, such as in (the irrevocably irritable) show South Park, or the Republican favourite, They Come to America.

Harsha Walia argues that what actually occurs in relation to borders is ‘border imperialism’, defined as the following:

“Border imperialism encapsulates four overlapping and concurrent structurings: first, the mass displacement of impoverished and colonized communities resulting from asymmetrical relations of global power, and the simultaneous securitization of the border against those migrants capitalism and empire have displaced; second, the criminalization of migration with severe punishment and discipline of those deemed “alien” or “illegal”; third, the entrenchment of a racialized hierarchy of citizenship by arbitrating who legitimately constitutes the nation state; and fourth, state-mediated exploitation of migrant labour, akin to conditions of slavery and servitude, by capitalist interests.” [2]

The most prevalent understanding is that Western generosity is extended towards displaced migrants; however, the root causes of such displacement are never discussed [3]. This narrative of benevolence can be further trumped when one considers how there are certain immigrants that are “the celebrated multiculturalism of Western governments’ carefully hand-picked (professional elite or investor class) diaspora” [4] that exist alongside the “deportspora”, a much larger and more diverse group of migrants [5].

When individuals are classified as “illegal immigrants” and are deported from either Canada or the United States as “criminals”, there is a larger system of domination at work. Borders are seen as needing protection, and as such, “by invoking the state itself as a victim, migrants themselves are cast as illegals and criminals who are committing an act of assault on the state” [6]. Under this logic, those innately constructed as being illegals, deviants, criminals, terrorists, or threats must be incarcerated, which is why many migrants are often detained [7]. As Walia argues, these migrant detention regimes constitute a large part of Western state-building and are an integral assertion of its border controls [8].

There’s also the notion that those who migrate ‘illegally’ “take advantage of the system.” This again speaks to a lack of understanding of the state and its colonial history. This framing also relies on the same state-perpetuated myths of tolerance and benevolence, such as the oft-repeated “Canadians are so nice and polite!” rhetoric.

What the discourse around “illegal immigration” obscures is the root causes of migration, or as I will explain, displacement. In an unequal global economic order, many are forced to move in order to seek better economic opportunities. Often they then find themselves working in precarious labour conditions as a result of state illegalization and therefore become even more vulnerable in the country they migrate to. Capitalism should therefore be understood as a major cause of mass displacement and migrations.

For example, the heavily surveillanced and securitized border between the U.S. and Mexico, where thousands of Mexican migrants have died while attempting to cross it, is a result of the impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) of 1994. Under NAFTA, millions of Mexicans were forced into poverty and therefore forced to migrate to the U.S. to work in low-wage sectors [9]. Walia cites Professor William Robinson to summarize this dynamic:

“The transnational circulation of capital and the disruption and deprivation it causes, in turn, generates the transnational circulation of labour. […] In a sense this must be seen as coerced or forced migration, as global capitalism exerts a structural violence over whole populations and makes it impossible to survive in their homeland.” [10]

Operation Gatekeeper, the system of border patrols and surveillance along the U.S.-Mexico border, was implemented the same year as NAFTA [11].

The term “illegal immigrant” is dehumanizing and destructive, obscuring so many systems of domination and power and placing blame squarely on those individuals that are the most marginalized and vulnerable–before, during, and after they migrate.

Many immigration activists point out that even the casual use of this term means that one is effectively saying that individuals themselves are unlawful, and thus have been long calling for the end of its use.

Below are some alternatives to the use of this term:

*Note: it is equally problematic to use the terms “alien”, “illegals”, “illegal alien”, etc.

Use / Context Alternatives
“The U.S. has so many illegal immigrants.” “The U.S. has so many undocumented/non-status immigrants.”
“She’s Mexican? Is she an illegal immigrant?” “She’s Mexican?”**Coupled with the refusal to make an assumption of someone’s status based on tired and offensive stereotypes.
“Ugh! All these illegal immigrants are here to steal jobs!” “Wow, it’s so sad how many migrants are forced into precarious labour and bad working conditions because of their marginalized status when they come here as a result of displacement caused by global capitalism.”


[1] Undoing Border Imperialism, by Harsha Walia, back cover

[2] Undoing Border Imperialism, by Harsha Walia,  pg. 5

[3] Undoing Border Imperialism, by Harsha Walia,  pg. 4

[4, 5] Undoing Border Imperialism, by Harsha Walia,  pg. 53

[6] Undoing Border Imperialism, by Harsha Walia,  pg. 54

[7] Undoing Border Imperialism, by Harsha Walia,  pg. 61

[8] Undoing Border Imperialism, by Harsha Walia,  pg. 54

[9, 10, 11] Undoing Border Imperialism, by Harsha Walia,  pg. 43

  • Geoff

    How do you suggest Canada/the US better deals with the problem of illegal immigration?

  • John

    “They come here as a result of displacement caused by global capitalism.” Sorry, but I don’t think that’s why they come here. They come here for a better life, among other reasons. Kind of arrogant to assume that that’s the reason people immigrate.