Illegal immigrant

Illegal immigration is the act of moving to or settling in another country or region, temporarily or permanently, in violation of the law or without documents permitting an immigrant to settle in that country. People who are illegal immigrants are foreign nationals, who often come to another country with the aid of a temporary visa, and who continue to reside and work while their legal authorization to stay in that country has expired (and while they do not have documents authorizing them to stay in the country).



There are various terms used to describe a person who either enters a country illegally, or who enters legally but subsequently violates the terms of their visa, permanent resident permit or refugee permit. The status and rights of such individuals is a controversial debate based on economics, nationalism and moral concerns.

Due to the political contention surrounding immigration issues, the use of language to describe certain types of immigrants is a sensitive matter. Terms that refer to immigrants who do not have residency permits to stay in the country of their choice, include:

  • illegal immigrant
  • illegals
  • illegal alien
  • undocumented immigrant, or sans-papiers

The terms "illegal immigrant" and "illegal alien" are legal phrases that refer to the illegality of the action of migration without legal authorization. "Illegal" most properly describes actions, not people. The term "undocumented" refers to the absence of certain residency documents that certify an individual's permission to reside in a country.


The immigration of people is largely driven by economic and social forces, including neocolonialism, demand created by consumers and the agribusiness industry, desire to secure a higher earning power, benefits such as education and healthcare, other multinational corporations seeking cheaper labor, unemployment in less-developed nations, globalization, wars, repression, resistance to various involuntary military servitude (such as conscription, "the draft" or its peacetime equivalent the National Service), and sexism.

Some advocates of free immigration characterize most migrants as legitimate refugees, while advocates of restrictions divide people into political migrants and economic migrants. Those who migrate for personal reasons are generally classed as economic migrants, even if living in the new country greatly reduces their earnings potential.


Some illegal immigrants enter a country legally and then overstay or violate their visa.

Immigrants from nations that do not have an automatic visa agreements, or who would not otherwise qualify for a visa, cross the borders illegally. In some areas like the Mexican-American border at Rio Grande, the Strait of Gibraltar, Fuerteventura and the Strait of Otranto, people smugglers (known as "coyotes" along the US/Mexican border) receive money from migrants to get them into the new country. Sometimes migrants are abandoned if there are difficulties, often dying in the process. Others may be victims of intentional killing. The official estimate is that between 1998-2004 there were 1,954 people who died in illegal crossings of the US/Mexico border. These smugglers often charge a hefty fee, and have been known to abuse their customers in attempts to have the debt repaid.

The Snakeheads gang of Fujian, China has been smuggling labor into Pacific Rim nations for over a century, making Chinatowns frequent centers of illegal immigrantion.[1] (

People smuggling may also be involuntary. Following the close of the legal international slave trade by the European nations and the US in the early 19th century the illegal importation of slaves into America continued for decades, albeit at much reduced levels. More recently, a sweatshop in Los Angeles, California was discovered in 1995 to be staffed by more than 30 imprisoned Thai persons who had been smuggled in for the purpose and in 1997 57 deaf Mexicans were found to have been kidnapped and enslaved as pan handlers in New York City, these people were deported to Mexico after being placed under house arrest to secure their testimony for the trial.

The so-called "white slave trade" referred to the smuggling of women, almost always under duress or fraud, for the purposes of prostitution. Now more generically called "sexual slavery" it continues to be a problem, particularly in Europe and the Middle East.

Legal and political status

Many countries have or had laws restricting immigration for economic, political or ethnic reasons. Whether or not a person is permitted to stay in a country legally may be decided on by quotas or point systems or may be based on considerations such as family ties (marriage, elderly mother, etc.). Immigrants who do not participate in these legal proceedings or who are denied permission under them and still enter or stay in the country are considered illegal immigrants.

In response to the outcry following popular knowledge of the Holocaust, the newly-established U.N. held an international conference on refugees, where it was decided that refugees (legally defined to be people who are persecuted in their original country and then enter another country seeking safety) should be exempted from immigration laws, however it is up to the countries involved to decide if a particular immigrant is a refugee or not, and hence whether or not they are subject to the immigration controls.

Since immigrants without proper legal status have limited use of their identity cards or other official identification documents, they may have reduced or even no access to public health systems, proper housing, education and banks, which may result in the creation or expansion of an illegal underground economy to provide these services.

See also: Immigration to the United States, Australian immigration, Immigration to the United Kingdom

Economic and social involvement

Most countries have laws requiring workers to have proper documentation, often intended to prevent the employment of illegal immigrants. However the penalties against employers are not always enforced consistently and fairly, which means that employers can easily use illegal labor. Agriculture, construction, domestic service, restaurants, resorts, and prostitution are the leading legal and illegal jobs that illegal workers are most likely to fill. For example, it is estimated that over 85% of US crop workers are without valid legal status.

The presence of illegal immigrants often generates opposition. A perception may exist among some parts of the public in receiving countries linking illegal (or even legal) immigrants to crime increases, an accusation that others may claim is "anti-immigrant" or "xenophobic". When the authorities are overwhelmed in their efforts to stop immigration, they may issue periods of regularization (amnesties) for those who can demonstrate their integration into the receiving country.

United States

Restricting immigration to the United States has been driven by what some claim is nativism, by economic fears of union busting, and by security interests. In the U.S. the first laws requiring passports for American citizens and creating a quota for immigrants were passed around the turn of the 20th century, in response to increased Irish, Italian and Jewish immigration. A few years earlier the Chinese Exclusion Act had restricted Chinese immigration. The quota for Jews was 5,000 a year in the 1930s and 1940s, and the waiting list for these immigration spots grew enormously when Hitler came to power in Germany. In the 1960s the US removed most nation-specific quotas in the immigration law, while retaining an overall quota, this changed the composition of the immigrants from mostly Western European, to a variety including many Asians. But in the 1990s the U.S. government again tightened restrictions on immigration. It is alleged that Ex post facto residency restrictions led to the imprisonment and deportation of over one million legal immigrants between 1997 and 2004. This has caused concern among some civil liberties advocates.

In the United States, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) made the hiring of an illegal alien an offense for the first time. Enforcement has been lax, but major businesses have occasionally been found to use undocumented workers. Tyson Foods was accused of actively importing illegal labor for its chicken packing plants, and Wal-Mart was accused of using illegal janitorial workers, though it claimed they were hired by a subcontractor without company knowledge. Philippe Kahn, who wanted to stay in the United States, created the successful computer software company Borland International without proper legal status. During his 2003 campaign for California governor, it was revealed that Arnold Schwarzenegger had violated his visa by working without a permit in the 1970s. The employment by prominent individuals of persons without work permits has been a recurring issue in politics ever since the practice was banned in the 1990s. Linda Chavez, Tom Tancredo are among those accused of hiring illegal aliens, the resulting scandals sometimes being dubbed "Nannygate".

A controversial alternative to fake IDs and other illegal practices is the Matricula Consular ID being used in the US, which is issued by Mexican consulates.

In the U.S., the 14th Amendment requires that citizenship be granted to all children born in the country. The U.S. government cannot deport a child citizen, but may deport his or her undocumented family members. Children of families with mixed immigration status are sometimes perjoratively referred to as anchor babies.

Illegal Emigration

There are also undocumented emigrants. During the Cold War, and even today, countries have prohibited both immigration and emigration. During the Cold War the Berlin Wall was the site of many fatal attempts to leave a country, and defection was a common concern. In the same period, the US seized the passports of suspected communists and restricted the movement of citizens with highly prized knowledge. After the end of the Cold War many of these restrictions were removed. Today the only restriction on the emigration of US citizens in good standing is taxation of any income emigrants earn while living outside the country. Since the end of the Cold War, restrictions are driven primarily by a concern over Brain Drain, this is when the professional classes leave in larger numbers than less skilled workers.

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