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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Column: Undocumented is a better term than ‘illegal’

Illegal parkers, illegal drinkers and illegal immigrants: What do they have in common?

You’ve probably never heard of the first two used that way. Sure, there are people who get parking tickets and drink underage, especially in a town like Gainesville, in which parking is so sparse and there are so many people under the age of 21. But those people are not defined by their actions. It’s more common to say, “I got a parking ticket,” than, “I’m an illegal parker.” Likewise, it is more common to say “underage drinking” than “illegal drinking.”

The more commonly used terms are the most accurate; they reflect what the offense actually is.

What illegal parking, drinking and immigration have in common is that all are offenses more accurately defined in another way. The term illegal immigrants, or even worse, “illegals,” makes the people it represents seem like inherent criminals. Some may say, if they crossed the border illegally, who knows what else they will do? No one says, “Some jerk parked over the line in the Commuter Lot — must be a murderer or a rapist!”

There’s a difference between civil and criminal offenses. Murder and underage drinking are both illegal, but one is commonly considered more severe than the other. According to, “Federal immigration law says that unlawful presence in the country is a civil offense and is, therefore, not a crime. The punishment is deportation.”

With any other offense, such false equivalency is considered ridiculous. It’s the reason not all crimes warrant a life sentence in prison. Crossing a border without papers does not mean anything about how good someone is — it’s literally just not having papers. According to the American Immigration Council, “Immigrants are less likely than the native-born to engage in criminal behavior.” The notion that living in the country without documents is a gateway to more crime is ridiculous.

According to a study by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy cited in a U.S. News and World Report, one-third of undocumented immigrants pay property taxes, 50 percent pay income tax, and 75 percent pay into Social Security. Despite these facts, there’s still a widespread belief that undocumented immigrants don’t contribute as much to society as “everyone else.”

Immigrating to the U.S. is a convoluted process that can only be made easier by either marrying a citizen or being born in the U.S. While some may think undocumented immigrants “took a shortcut” out of laziness or ignorance, this underestimates the difficulty of immigrating to the U.S. It’s not like someone who wants to immigrate here can just snap his or her fingers and get a permanent resident card. If undocumented immigrants tried to get to the U.S. through “the line,” they would still be waiting, because it doesn’t really exist.

Words matter, and although some may believe the term undocumented is a politically correct attempt to censor the truth, it’s not. Let’s start calling it what it is and stop vilifying people for trying to better their lives when the odds are stacked against them. It’s the best way to characterize this type of immigration, which comes with its own set of challenges — such as a fear of deportation and the potential breaking up of a family whose members might have mixed immigration statuses.

Nicole Dan is a UF political science and journalism junior. Her column usually appears on Mondays.

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