The Language of the Immigration Debate

This lesson explores the effect of terminology surrounding the immigration debate.
Grade Level


Activities will help students:

  • define vocabulary terms used in the immigration debate 
  • understand the difference between denotation and connotation 
  • analyze the impact of terminology in the immigration debate 
Essential Questions
  • What do the terms used to describe immigrants actually mean?
  • Why do certain terms carry negative connotations?
  • How can language impact attitudes?


alien [ay-lee-uhn] (noun) person coming from another place; foreign

citizen [sit-uh-zuhn] (noun) person belonging to a certain country

illegal [il-lee-gull] (adjective) going against the law

immigrant [im-uh-grint] (noun) person from another place who moves to a new country to live

immigration [im-uh-gray-shun] (noun) the act of moving from one place to another to live

unauthorized [un-aw-thur-ized] (adjective) something that is not permitted

undocumented [un-dock-uy-ment-ed] (adjective) not having the required paperwork



1)    As a class, briefly discuss some of the issues surrounding immigration. Use the following guiding questions to spark the conversation:

  • What is immigration? What is the process for immigrating to a new country?
  • Where do many immigrants come from? Where do many immigrants settle?
  • Why might someone immigrate to the United States?

(Note: After the discussion, highlight that this is in the context of “immigration debate.”) 

2) Then, working in pairs, complete the handout Key Terms in Immigration Debate to familiarize yourself with the vocabulary surrounding this issue.  An alternative is to have students work with a partner to define the following words. For each term, write a definition, the part of speech and a sentence correctly using the word.








3)    Denotation is the exact meaning of a word. Connotation, on the other hand, is more than just the dictionary definition of a word. Connotation is the suggested, or implied, meaning of a word. For example, the denotations of the words “cute” and “gorgeous” may be similar, but their connotations are different. (Note: Encourage students to list the connotations of the words “cute” and “gorgeous.”)

4)    (Note: List the words illegal and unauthorized on the board.) Individually, write down the connotations for these words. Then, compare your responses with a partner. Discuss:

  • Are your responses similar or different? Any surprises?
  • Have you ever done anything “unauthorized”? What were the consequences? Did you break a school rule or a household rule?
  • Is doing something that is unauthorized the same as doing something that is illegal? Why or why not? (Note: An example might be that entry into the cafeteria after lunchtime is unauthorized. If a student enters, what should the punishment be? Is this a bad thing? Can you think of instances when a student might make the decision to enter even though it’s not authorized? What if entry into the cafeteria after lunchtime were illegal? How does this change the situation?)

5)    Review the vocabulary you read at the beginning of this lesson, which includes some of the terms in the immigration debate. Then read this New York Times article about immigration:What Part of ‘Illegal’ Don’t You Understand?  

6)    Now that you’ve read one writer’s opinion about language, take some time to think about the language of immigration. Use the handout Connotations to explore the meanings of the words in this lesson’s vocabulary list. (Note: Encourage students to use this handout for the first vocabulary word. Then, have them draw the web on separate sheets of paper for each of the other words in the list.)

7)    Share the webs from your Connotations handout in small groups. Discuss the following:

  • Were your connotations similar to your classmates’?
  • Where do you think your connotations came from? (Note: Point out that students may have been influenced by the media or by the attitudes of family or friends.)
  • Which vocabulary terms had positive connotations?
  • Which had negative connotations?
  • Why do you think some words have positive connotations, while others have negative connotations?

8)    Reread the New York Times article about immigration:What Part of ‘Illegal’ Don’t You Understand?  

9)    Now that you’ve analyzed which terms have positive connotations and which have negative connotations, consider the following: The author of “What Part of ‘Illegal’ Don’t You Understand?” believes that language is an important part of the issue of immigration. Do you agree? Write a response to the article in which you EITHER

a) agree that terminology is important and that undocumented immigrant or unauthorized immigrant are better terms than illegal or alien


b) disagree that terminology is important and argue that any terms are fine to use

10) Share your letter with another student who has the opposite viewpoint. Use this as a way to discuss your point of view about the language of the immigration debate, and to rework your letter so it’s more effective and persuasive. Finally, send your letter to the newspaper editor.