General Guidelines

Updated: March 31, 2023

  • Focus on the person—their achievement, their leadership, their scholarship, their research, etc.—not their immigration status.
  • Use illegal only to describe an action, not a person.
  • Familiarize yourself with the range of categories describing a person’s citizenship and immigration status: nationality, country of origin, citizen, permanent resident, undocumented.
  • Do not specify a person’s immigration status unless it is relevant to the story AND approved by the source.
  • The status of undocumented workers should be discussed between source, content creator and with the content creator’s supervisor because of the risk of deportation.
  • Use terms that are legally accurate and avoid racially and politically charged labels.
  • Not all undocumented people have DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) status. Be sure to differentiate between these two experiences.

Preferred Terms

  • show they are legally entitled to work, visit or live in the United States
  • Mixed-status couple/family. Refers to couples or families with members who have different immigration status. (Note: mixed-status also can be used in the health care industry to describe a relationship in which one partner is HIV-positive and the other is HIV-negative.)
  • Refugee. Refers to people who have been forced to leave their country of origin to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster. Note: Refugee is a status that is granted by the receiving country, and it does not apply to all people who have been forced to leave. It is important to note the difference between people who are displaced and refugees.
  • Asylum seeker. Refers to people who are seeking international protection but whose claim for refugee status has not yet been determined.
  • DREAM Act or Dreamer. The DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act is congressional legislation that would allow young immigrants in the country illegally who were brought here as children to remain in the country if they meet certain criteria. The legislation has not been approved by Congress, despite various versions being introduced over the years. The DREAM Act is similar to, but not the same as, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA). Many refer to immigrants who would benefit from either program as Dreamers. As often as possible, use other terms such as immigrant, youth, or the person’s name instead of Dreamer. If using the term Dreamer to describe a person, be sure that is the way they prefer to be described and that you have their explicit permission.

Terms to avoid

  • Illegal immigrant, alien, illegals (preferred term: undocumented immigrant)
  • Illegal worker (preferred term: undocumented worker)
  • Expat, expatriate

Download the Guide

Download a PDF of the University of Iowa DEI Style Guide