Illegal or Undocumented: An Analysis of Immigrant Terminology in Contemporary American Media

Robin Lee Nelson, Patricia Davis-Wiley


This purpose of this study was to analyze the terms illegal alien, illegal immigrant, and undocumented immigrant in order to determine if these legal synonyms exhibit pragmatic differences in actual practice found in American media. Studies have reported that differences in terminology, metaphor, and discourse framing largely serve to dehumanize or empower immigrants for partisan purposes in legal language (Johnson 1996), politics (Mehan 1997), and in the media (Santa Ana, 1999). Given the semantic presumption of criminality with the terms illegal alien and illegal immigrant, it can be argued that undocumented immigrant is used in more positive contexts in the media when compared with the terms illegal alien or illegal immigrant. In order to test this theory, the authors used the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA, 2016) to analyze the frequency, presumption of criminality in context, and different media outlets’ use of illegal alien, illegal immigrant, and undocumented immigrant. Results of this study found that the terms illegal immigrant and illegal alien have been used significantly more in American media than the term undocumented immigrant, although that trend appears to be shifting. While there was little difference in the presumption of criminality with illegal immigrant and undocumented immigrant, contexts using illegal alien assumed criminality twice as often as the other terms. Fox News and CNN used terms with illegal much more than any other group, although CNN has largely phased the terms out of use in recent years; NPR used the term undocumented immigrant significantly more than other media.

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International Journal of Social Science Studies   ISSN 2324-8033 (Print)   ISSN 2324-8041 (Online)

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