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Black’s Law Dictionary: “Unlawful Immigrant” is correct, not “Illegal Immigrant”

The New York Times and a whole bunch of other respected media outlets still use the word “Illegal Immigrant” to describe human beings who are present in the United States without the authorization of its immigration laws.

“Illegal” and “Illegal Immigrant” are terms used by groups that hate Latinos and other non-white persons who could be construed as unlawfully present in the United States solely on account of the hue of their skin or the noise  rolling off their tongue. While I personally believe this reason alone is enough to stop using the word “illegal immigrant”, there is a compelling argument that “Unlawful” is more accurate than “Illegal” in describing certain immigrants in the United States.

Black’s law dictionary supports the conclusion that “Unlawful Immigrant” is more appropriate. To wit:

Unlawful:

“The acting contrary to, or in defiance of the law...While necessarily not implying the element of criminality, it is broad enough to include it.” In a footnote, Black’s further explains: “Unlawful” and “illegal” are frequently used as synonymous terms, but, in the proper sense of the word, “unlawful, as applies to promises, agreements, considerations, and the like,[Civil Law] denotes that they are ineffectual in law because they involve acts which, although not illegal, i.e., positively forbidden, are disapproved of by the law, and are therefore not recognized as the ground of legal rights, either because they are immoral or because they are against public policy. (emphasis added)

Illegal:

“Sometimes this term means merely that which lacks authority of or support from law; but more frequently it imports a violation. Etymologically, the word seems to convey the negative meaning only. But in ordinary use it has a severer, stronger signification: the idea of censure or condemnation for breaking law is usually presented. (emphasis added)

Keep in mind that these definitions are old. However, there is a subtle yet strong difference between the legal meaning of “Unlawful” and “Illegal.”

“Illegal”‘s more common use tacks on the implication of criminality and condemnation to the conduct behind the violation of law whereas “Unlawful” does not.  Rather, it is simply used to describe the violation of law, not the conduct of the act behind it.

For example, the definition of murder starts with “The unlawful killing…” Unlawful in this context does not carry a condemnatory meaning. It simply describes the killing as contrary to law.

The great majority of immigrants unlawfully in the United States are violating civil law, not criminal law. The conduct behind the violation is not  malum in se  or “inherently wrong”. Rather,  the conduct behind many immigrants’ unlawful presence in the United States is only unlawful because a statute says so.

 A journalist should not be using a word such as “illegal”  because by its legal definition and the context of using it to describe an individual or individuals, it shatters any sort of neutrality, attributing a negative implication to the conduct behind the violation, which cannot be objectively described as “inherently wrong”

By refusing to look elsewhere for a word, such as “Unlawful”, media outlets are complicit in perpetuating the unwarranted connotation of “condemnation” to human beings who have only violated civil laws for no other reason than to improve the quality of their life and that of their families.

One can say all they want about protecting “American” job interests, etc, but that falls under the “against public policy” prong of the definition of “unlawful”,  something that organizations such as the New York Times should know.

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