The difference between the terms “legal immigrant” and “illegal alien” lies in racial prejudice, according to Hidetaka Hirota, an associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
“It’s simply racist, in essence, because the native has associated a figure of the ‘illegal alien’ with non-white immigrants, especially Mexicans in particular, you know, by willingly [overlooking] the simple fact that the undocumented immigrants do include Europeans,” Hirota said.
Boston College’s Irish studies and history departments welcomed Hirota on Wednesday night to speak on the origins of the term “illegal alien,” specifically when referring to Irish, Japanese, and Mexican immigrant populations in the 19th century.
According to Hirota, historians have identified two legal origins for the term—one of them being the Chinese Restriction Act of 1882 that banned Chinese laborers from entering the United States.
“[It] … created the category of unlawful Chinese who entered the United States in violation of this law,” Hirota said. “So the Chinese Restriction Act did create the very category of illegal Chinese, like unlawful Chinese.”
The other legal origin of the term is the Immigration Act of 1924, according to Hirota. This act not only eliminated immigration from Japan, but it also only granted immigration visas to two percent of each nationality living in the U.S., further hindering undocumented immigrants from gaining employment.
“The history of both laws is relatively well known among historians of the United States,” Hirota said. “It is no doubt that the modern concept of illegal alien[s] originated from these laws.”
Hirota then pivoted toward discussing the history of the Foran Act of 1855, which he said resulted from fears of immigrant workers threatening standard wage and employment rates in the U.S.