‘Illegal Immigrant’: Perspectives from Cognitive Linguistics

by Graham Jones

We should not talk about immigrants being 'illegal'.

First published: 07 October, 2014 | Category: Migration

The recent furore over immigration minister Mark Harper's ironic employment choices highlighted an uncomfortable fact: that gleeful use of the term 'illegal immigrant' isn't restricted to the right-wing. Across social media, the term was used as a weapon by people of all political shades, often without so much as a scare quote or ironic hashtag. The desire to retaliate is understandable given how much this government has done to stoke tensions around immigration. But it mustn't be done in ways that legitimise the very discourses that dehumanise and misrepresent those we're trying to fight with. Despite a number of recent pieces setting out the moral grounds for avoiding the 'illegal' modifier – such as Chitra Nagarajan for the New Statesman and Kiri Kankhwende for Media Diversified – it seems the message has not yet got out, even amongst the left.

One problem seems to be that many don't feel the language critiques are actually justified. 'But if they're immigrants, and are here illegally, they are illegal immigrants', so the comments often go. And although it's a simplistic view, it clearly has intuitive appeal, and it needs a strong response. Without wanting to pander to reactionary arguments, it would nevertheless be useful to examine 'illegal immigrant' in closer semantic detail, to help support a cohesive argument against it.

Many will be familiar with the work of George Lakoff, the cognitive linguist whose framing theories have been applied to political commentary and activism, both in his own writing, and in endeavours such as the recent New Economic Foundation report Framing the Economy: the Austerity Story. Less well known however is the broader field of cognitive linguistics. Given that the debate about 'illegal immigrant' is of course about language and our response to it, perspectives from cognitive linguistics can be useful in teasing out what makes the term so misleading and dehumanising.

1) Suppressing human characteristics

We can look at 'illegal immigrant' in terms of metonymy - where the name for something is replaced with the name of a related concept. To borrow a distinction from Christopher Hart, two types of metonym can be seen here: inward (where an individual is replaced by one of their attributes) and outward (where an individual is subsumed under a wider class).


The inward metonymy of 'illegal' involves substituting the person as a whole with their single attribute of unresolved immigration status. This draws our attention to only that one aspect of the person, while other elements (age, gender, country of origin, ethnicity, education, reason for migration, socioeconomic status, etc.) are backgrounded.

'Immigrant' on the other hand involves outward metonymy. This has the effect of subsuming the individual under a larger blanket group. It exaggerates the similarity between individuals, and also minimises the importance of their unique characteristics.

Significantly, both 'illegal' and 'immigrant' obscure features we associate with humanity and autonomy - that people have unique individual characteristics, and that these are inherent rather than conferred by legal institutions. In some cases the deleterious effects of the outward 'immigrant' metonymy can be made up for by fleshing out human characteristics in the surrounding text - and indeed, people sometimes choose to use it as part of their own identity, like on their social media profiles. But here we're concerned with its use to describe others as 'immigrants', with little or no elaboration, in already hostile environments - particularly the tabloid press. When these two forms of metonymy come together in this context, it presents the individuals referred to not as human beings, but as a uniform type, identifiable purely by the stamp of illegality.

2) Activating a stereotype which fits only a portion of real life cases

The term 'illegal immigrant' won't by itself trigger every possible example of that category in the minds of readers or listeners. Instead, it's activates what Lakoff calls an idealised cognitive model - in other words, a mental image of the world that is massively simplified in its assumptions. In the model invoked by 'illegal immigrant', there is a binary between legal entry and illegal entry, which often translates to moral vs. immoral. But due to the simplicity of this model, it can represent only a fraction of the realities of the people referred to.

Here are some examples of people who have come to be in the UK without legal leave to remain, but who do not all fall neatly into a legal entry/illegal entry binary. Each is a real example, and I've linked to Tribunal decisions in their successful appeals:

Jamaican woman, 36, came to study accountancy, overstayed as feared persecution on return for being a lesbian

Burundian woman, 29, former child sex trafficking victim, entered under false identity

Algerian man, 52, entered UK and promptly claimed asylum, then had to wait fourteen years for a response. His wife entered illegally seven years after he did whilst they waited. They had two children in the UK before a decision on his claim was made.

Indian male student, held valid student visa which was subsequently revoked when his college lost their licence, and he was given no time to look for a replacement

Pakistani woman, 50, came to UK with visitor's visa, overstayed to look after her disabled husband

Afghan man, 20, arrived aged 15 on false documents. Former child member of Hezb-e-Islami, father killed by Afghan government

Tanzanian woman, 31, trafficked to the UK and kept as a domestic slave. Her visa had been expired for four years by the time she escaped and claimed asylum

Some entered legally and overstayed (either by their own will or someone else's). Some entered legally and had their leave revoked. Others entered 'illegally' but as refugees, and as such are exempt from prosecution or removal under national and international law. And yet despite the variety of circumstances, all fall under the commonly understood definition of 'illegal immigrant', and would likely be referred to as such in the media.

Each of these cases would lead people to reason differently about the appropriate response. But without this fine-grained detail, the term 'illegal immigrant' will bring to mind an particular image, leading to oversimplistic catch-all judgments.

3) Even 'illegal immigration' is calling people illegal

At this point you may be thinking "OK, so maybe I'll avoid illegal immigrant, but what about 'illegal immigration'? That's not about people, so that's fine!" Many have agreed, but in the long run I'd argue it's still misleading and dehumanising. One frequent argument used in favour of 'illegal immigration' is that a person can't be illegal, but a process can. To quote the Associated Press:

"Except in direct quotes essential to the story, use illegal only to refer to an action, not a person: illegal immigration, but not illegal immigrant."

This therefore assumes that 'immigrant' refers only to a person and 'immigration' to only a process. But at the risk of stating the obvious, these processes require the presence of a person. In the cognitive grammar of Ronald Langacker, 'immigrant' and 'immigration' are not seen as having separate meaning, one referring to a person and another a process. Instead, they refer to the same semantic content, but with a different focal point. This means that 'immigrant' and 'immigration' both refer to people and processes - the difference is merely in which element stands out.

To demonstrate, here's a diagram that represents the verb 'immigrate'.


Verbs involve connections between entities that are scanned sequentially. In 'immigrate' this involves a person and their geographic position - an immigrant begins in Country A, then travels, and then finds themself in Country B.

The focus however is on the progress in time between them (the thick black arrow), rather than on any entity or connection, which remain implicit (greyed out). This is what leads people to say that 'immigrate' is a process, not a person. But you can't understand or use the concept of 'immigrate' without at least implying a person who has immigrated, and a place they have immigrated to/from.


Compare this to the abstract noun 'immigration'. Here we retain the same component states from 'immigrate', but the focus is no longer on a change through time (the black arrow is replaced with a black border). This might seem counterintuitive given the common argument that 'immigration' denotes a process, but that's because the sense of process is different. This is an implicit process that comes about due to the same states all being activated as a whole, simultaneously.

Think of it like this - if you unroll a reel of film and look at a selection of frames, you can still conceive of its animation by the change between the frames, even if in that moment it's not playing back. In 'he immigrated to the UK' the film is playing and the characters animated; whereas in 'progress has been made on immigration' the film is unrolled, and the various states of immigration are seen as a whole.

Finally, the above diagram represents 'immigrant'. Here, the semantic components are again the same as the previous two - a person and their relation to a home country, a means of travel, and a destination country. This time however, it's not the whole collection of these states which is foregrounded, but one of the constituent entities - an individual person.

What this all shows is that saying "illegal immigration just refers to a process" is a misdirection because the two are not mutually exclusive - immigration is a process which presupposes a person. To modify 'immigration' with 'illegal' places that illegality over the whole of the concept and all its component states. It may well be better than 'illegal immigrant' in that it doesn't emphasise 'this human is illegal', but it ultimately constructs the same implication. As shown by the reactions to the Mark Harper debacle, someone may genuinely only mean to modify the implicit process as illegal, and not the person. But either way the people involved are still viewed through the frame of criminality, and it therefore still feeds into dehumanising anti-immigrant discourse.

Then what should we use?

A popular alternative is 'irregular migrant'. This is better, as it doesn't trigger the hugely negative and misleading criminality frame, but creates some of the same problems as 'illegal immigrant' - if a human being can't be illegal, they can't be irregular either. And whilst 'migrant' certainly has more neutral connotations than 'immigrant', it shares the blanketing outward metonymy that, as outlined earlier, must always be used with care.

I suggest avoiding 'illegal immigrant', or even 'irregular migrant', and instead encourage something like 'person with irregular migration status'.

• Explicitly referring to 'person'/'people' foregrounds and emphasises our shared humanity, with the remaining immigration status difference made more peripheral.

• The process of migration is separated from the person, setting it apart as a conferred social status rather than an inherent trait.

• When the person and process are no longer folded together in a single word, it can no longer be modified with 'illegal' to imply a person is illegal, and then be excused with 'I meant the process'.

• It's broad enough to include the various routes to an irregular status mentioned above - whether clandestine or deceptive entry, revoked or expired leave, or refugees awaiting the outcome of an appeal.

'Person with irregular migration status' may seem unwieldy and circumlocutory, but there are plenty of situations where we use this type of construction, such as for people with eating disorders or people without basic skills. As @joseiswriting points out, a 'person driving without a licence' is generally not referred to as an 'illegal driver'. They could be, but it would seem absurd. It's about time we saw the same absurdity in 'illegal immigrant'.

This article is part of NLP's Immigration series.


Amazing diagrams by Rosie of DIYcouture


Graham Jones writes about the intersection of language, cognition and social change, with particular interest in gender, mental health, anarchism and immigration. He tweets here.



Croft, W. and Cruse, D. (2004) Cognitive Linguistics
Hart, C. (2011) Moving beyond metaphor in the Cognitive Linguistic Approach to CDA: Construal operations in immigration discourse. In C. Hart (ed.), Critical Discourse Studies in Context and Cognition.
Lakoff, G. (1987) Women, Fire and Dangerous Things
Langacker, R. (1987, 1991) Foundations in Cognitive Grammar volume 1 and 2
Langacker, R. (2008) - Cognitive Grammar: A Basic Introduction

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