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The Invention of the Illegal Immigrant

It's only fairly recently that we started to use the term that's so popular right now.
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Border fence in California. (Photo: Eric White/Flickr)

Border fence in California. (Photo: Eric White/Flickr)

Citing the immigration scholar, Francesca Pizzutelli, Fabio Rojas explains that the phrase “illegal immigrant” wasn’t a part of the English language before the 1930s. More often, people used the phrase “irregular immigrant.” Instead of an evaluative term, it was a descriptive one referring to people who moved around and often crossed borders for work.


Rojas points out that the language began to change after anti-immigration laws were passed by Congress in the 1920s. The graph above also reveals a steep climb in both “illegal immigrant” and “illegal alien” beginning in the ’70s.

This post originally appeared on Sociological Images, a Pacific Standard partner site, as “Saturday Stat: The Invention of the 'Illegal Immigrant.'”