Article 6 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserts that “Everyone has a right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.” But as the existing climate has made clear, that is far from the case. Donald Trump has ascended to the presidency on a platform that has disparaged women, Muslims, LGBT folk, and the list goes on. The “Alt-Right”, a euphemism for Neo-Nazi ideologues and their sympathizers, is led by a man who has called for the extermination of Black people.

This is not limited to the United States. Brexit, or the United Kingdom’s secession from the European Union, happened by capitalizing on anti-immigrant sentiments. The European Union is no saint either, with its member states in the mediterranean known for their reticence to accept refugees from the Middle East and Africa. These examples show that, far from being recognized under the law, the law operates by actively erasing their humanity.

Article 6 of the UDHR will ground this project because at the heart of the contemporary discussion on normative citizenship lies the issue of recognition under the law. Recognition, as I will construct it, exists along two axes. The first is explicitly stated in the Article; recognizing someone means acknowledging someone as a person before the law. A person, regardless of where they are born and the circumstances under which they migrate, loves and is loved, has objectives and goals for themselves and those they care about. Every person around the globe ought to have full and long lives, and the law should have as its central objective the recognition of that very fact.

The second axis, though operating under the surface, is no less important. Recognition under the law means agents of the law recognize someone as capable of making sense of their social experience, thus seeing all people as credible knowers of information. Part of what it means to be a member of a marginalized group is the idea that not only is one excluded from the generation of socially relevant meaning in the courts and in the public domain, but, due to such exclusion, is unable to make sense of their exclusion in seeking legal redress for claims, or legal support for their recognition as people. Applied to this project, noncitizens, by virtue of their place in the social order, are neither able to controvert damaging narratives and legal terms of art, nor are they able to make claims for redress through legal channels. These disadvantages solidify the idea that being a noncitizen in this day and age is identical to being invisible under the law.

I will use this project to introduce a term that can unite the global plight of noncitizenship: “illegalized.” Why the term, as opposed to “undocumented”, or the more abrasive “illegal”? “Undocumented” is a misleading term; people to whom the term applies have documents. They may not have American documents, but to assign undocumented status is a non sequitur. Further, “undocumented” as applied to the American context implies that 1) mere legal status is the goal, and 2) American status ought to be the normative goal. To argue that the plight of noncitizens, and the issues of non-recognition inherent in the struggle, aims to attain a Western standard of citizenship is both disrespectful and pernicious.

In what is probably a departure from many of my colleagues in the immigrants’ rights movement (I think the technical term is “dishing out a hot take”), I argue that “illegal” is a better term than “undocumented.” Although a terrible term in its own right, examining it reveals that it describes the noncitizen’s political situation with a surprising level of accuracy that “undocumented” hides much too hastily. “Illegal” does the dehumanizing work that “undocumented” was designed to protect from yet failed to. Nevertheless, it implies that being illegal is a static state of affairs, which is solved by regularization; as it stands, people refuse to sympathized with some noncitizens on the account that they have not made the effort to be “legal.” And in that regard, “illegal” ultimately falls into the same trap that befell its gentler, more liberalized relative.

Human rights champion Elie Wiesel famously stated that “No human is illegal.” I will give Mr. Wiesel the benefit of the doubt and assume he is making a decidedly normative point—no human ought to be illegal. Even in a descriptive sense no human being is illegal— this point owing to my critique above. Nevertheless, humans around the world are illegalized. I use the term because I hope this project makes clear that becoming and remaining illegal even when a noncitizen attains formal citizenship is an ongoing social, historical, and epistemic process. With changing times come ever-adapting modes of marginalization. The “illegal” exists because of this unholy trinity that not only determines the political climate in which noncitizens live and make claims, but the legal epistemic space in which their claims and claims about them are adjudicated. Using the term also facilitates intersectionality among movements by examining how others are illegalized in ways that do not deal with legal status or “papers.” Applying this to the issue of recognition under the law as a human rights issue, combating illegalization is not just legalization. Combating illegalization requires a transformation of  unjust epistemic processes by which some social meanings of personhood are elevated, others are ignored, and others yet are actively suppressed.

Having argued the above, I contend that the political situation of illegalized immigrants in the United States as well as the situation of other illegalized people around the world make it abundantly clear that there are people for whom recognition as people under the law is an impossibility. As an example of the above, consider the term “illegal alien” in American legal terminology and how it has molded the immigrants’ rights movement. Though the term has legal meaning dating back to at least 1790 (Alienage Act), the term “alien” also draws from its significant cultural valence. For illegalized people making claims against being termed as aliens, they have to fight against both its cultural valence as well as its legal significance. Fighting against such an entrenched conception of undocumented immigrants becomes an insurmountable obstacle.

My objective will consist of building on my strengths in discussing noncitizenship in the American political context. Using this knowledge and uniting it with the struggle of immigrants around the world, I hope to do my best to make relevant what I consider the Archimedean right: the right of recognition.

2 Comments

  1. Interestingly, there was the same debate about semantics some years ago in France (“immigrés illégaux” or “clandestins” being the equivalent of “Illegals”, and “sans-papiers” being the equivalent of “undocumented”).

    Now, even the French right and far-right wing media use the term “sans-papiers”, even if they continue to use the term “clandestins” or “illégaux”. And of course, it doesn’t change their discourse about immigrants or illegalized people.

    I’m intrigued by your proposal, and I’m trying to find a translation of it in French (the literal translation “illégalisé” is maybe too unnatural, in my opinion).

    And I’m wondering to which extent the word “illegalized” is likely to suffer a semantic drift, a bit like “sans-papiers”.

  2. Apologies for the late delay, but I have been thinking about your “semantic drift” concern for days. One idea that I have been working with is grounding illegalization or relating the concept to legal recognition (See Article 6 of the UDHR) . Legal recognition is a more established term, and relating illegalization to something more established might, through continued linking, be much more resistant to semantic drift than “sans-papiers” or “undocumented. I welcome your thoughts on this.

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