On “Unauthorized Alien”

Commentary & Community

On “Unauthorized Alien”

Sometimes words get in the way.

At VoteSpotter, we are committed to being non-partisan. To do this, we strive to describe legislation using a neutral point-of-view. We aim to describe the legislation and then let you make up your mind about whether you agree with how your member of Congress voted on it.

At times, however, it’s difficult -- if not impossible -- to find words or phrases to use that are neutral.

Take the issue of illegal immigration. Even saying it that way frames it as being on one side of the ideological spectrum, since many people prefer using “undocumented immigration.”

This is an issue that is being debated in Congress this week. VoteSpotter needs to describe it. But what term should we use? Illegal alien? Undocumented immigrant? Unauthorized immigrant?

At VoteSpotter, we have settled on “unauthorized alien.”

We recognize that no matter what phrase VoteSpotter uses, there will be some users who see it as an indication of bias. That’s not what we want to have happen. We want to be as neutral and transparent as possible. So we decided to explain in this blog post why we chose to use “unauthorized alien.”

In deciding this, we did one of things we do best: research. Title 8 of U.S. code contains laws on citizenship, nationality, and immigration, and describes the concept of an illegal immigrant in several ways.

A search yields these results:


The term “illegal alien” was mentioned most of all – 33 times for 39 percent of total mentions. The second most common term was “unauthorized alien,” which appeared 21 times or about a quarter of the time. Interestingly enough, “undocumented alien” was the third most common with 18 uses. My preferred term of “illegal immigrant” was used only six times but the term “illegal immigration” was used 93 times, which I didn’t include in the table because it’s not a term that describes individuals.

Since “illegal alien” is a term that is tied to one side of the immigration debate, we thought it was best to use the second-most used term in the code, “unauthorized alien.” That is a term that is more neutral and not as caught up in the political debate.

We know this will not please everyone. We know that people will disagree and think we decided on this in order to push a certain point-of-view. Unfortunately when it comes to this issue, the ideological division is so wide that even a simple word choice can become fraught with unintended meaning. While we cannot change that, we can at least be transparent about why we chose the term we use.


We look forward to continuing to provide you the easiest way to make your voice heard on this and other issues.


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