Language and the Issue of Illegal Immigrants
In my book on the language of politics, I noted that the language we use to identify things usually presupposes theories of the things. My example was the language used to identify the poor reflecting the political prejudices of the speaker/writer.
In the news now and apropos my last blog, is the issue of illegal immigration. In my morning Dispatch yesterday, this paper being the origin of many of my blogs, there was a piece on the op-ed page by Victor Davis Hanson, whom I had never heard of, on the terms used to describe illegal immigrants that illustrates this phenomenon. The Dispatch site I got his paper from requires registration and I haven't found this particular piece anywhere else. He has numerous other papers on this immigration you could look at, however, which you can access by Goggling "Victor Davis Hanson illegal immigration."
Mr. Hanson is concerned with terms referring to illegal immigrants that are to him misleading. He focuse on:
1. illegal alien This is the term Hanson seems to prefer. He notes that it is not meant to evoke the aliens of science fiction. The problem with this term is that "alien" has extremely negative connotations no matter what Hanson thinks. The term "alien influences," gives you a taste of what I mean by this for alien influences are always deemed bad by the speaker/writer who uses the phrase. What we see here is that Hanson, like so many of those who object to bias, fails to reflect on the biases he brings to the table.Hanson also discusses some terms used for advocates of particular programs. Hanson notes that persons who oppose illegal immigration are sometimes referred to as anti-immigrant or anti-immigration, which, of course, would rarely be literally true. We are all immigrants, or children of immigrants, or children of the children of immigrants, and so forth and so on.
2. undocumented worker Hanson sees this as the "politically correct" version of the first term discussed. Of course, "politically correct" is a term used only by those who wish to bludgeon others linguistically. I don't recall anyone saying or writing that he or she endorses the use of "politically correct language." So, again, Hanson didn't check his biases at the door of this debate, revealing in the process that he prefers negative terms to refer to illegal immigrants. Hanson accurately notes that this term does not suggest that the persons in question are law breakers. As I noted this is correct but it bolsters my position that Hanson wants to use as negative a term as he can for illegal immigrants.
3. illegal immigrant Hanson doesn't discuss this term as an example of acceptable or misleading language though he uses it himself. It is superior to Hanson's favored term illegal alien because "immigrant" does not have any particularly negative connotations except, perhaps, for xenophobes. Hanson notes, interestingly, that there are more legal and illegal immigrants here now -- about 30 million -- than at any time in history.
4. guest workers This is perhaps the most euphemistic term. As he notes, invited guests are rarely asked to wash the dishes of their hosts but many illegal aliens will be employed in people's homes to do this among other things. Hanson would perfer the less euphemistic terms "imported worker" or "contracted worker," but "imported" is lingusitically problematic as we shall see in the next paragraph.
5. imported low-wage worker This is a term Hanson uses to contrast with guest worker, saying it is more accurate. Actually, it immediately suggests to me that such workers would be like olive oil for it is primarily commodities we say are "imported," not people. Others use the term the way Hanson does so it is not a novel expression. He goes on to refer to the work such persons would do as "brutal," which suggests that he must see cotton picking as the paradigm case of the sort of work these people would do in a "guest worker" program.
Sometimes propponents of "tighter borders" are referred to as nativists Hanson claims. That too would be ridiculous for the only nativists in the United States were the original Amerindians and even they were not native but, rather, came here from somewhere else. He also claims that some opponents of tighter borders are referred to as racists. This too would be inaccurate since most immigrants would not be racially different from persons who are here already. Moreover, such persons may have no problem at all with legal immigrants of the same racial makeup as the illegal ones. Note that in all these cases, Hanson is defending those opposed to illegal immigration against misleading verbal attacks. This, combined with the fact that he prefers terms referring to illegal immigrants that emphasizes that they are law breakers, and seems especially to prefer the quite pejorative term illegal alien over the less pejorative illegal immigrant makes clear that he is hostile to the aspirations of illegal immigrants. In saying this, I have in mind not the ones who will be coming here in the future but those already here.
As with so many American political debates, few people know how to discuss issues in ways that might be productive. We have three problems. The first is whether or not, why, and how to protect our borders so that people who we do not want to come here will not be able to come here. The second is whether or not we want to allow certain people to come into the country legally. The third is what we should do about those who are already here illegally.
In my opinion, the national interest dictates that we must do something to insure that no members of terrorist organizations can slip into the country to cause us harm. Solving that problem will necessarily solve the problem of future illegal immigration. If no member of a terrorist group is able to slip into the country from Mexico by crossing the border into California or New Mexico or Texas or come in on a fraudulent visa or come in in any other way that is illegal, then there should be no illegal immigrants of any type, including terrorists. So, the real debate should concern the second and third questions.
Since most people are not opposed to legal immigration, the real political issuse is what to do about the illegal immigrants who are here. Hanson reveals, perhaps unintentionally, through his "linguistic analysis" that he takes a negative stance toward illegal immigrants who are already here. After all, they are law breakers, as he says.
I applaud Hanson for bringing up the importance of language choices in political debate. However, he is not an innocent here for his own language choices and his criticisms of the language choices of others betrays that he too is biased and is not incapable of using misleading language such as imported low-wage worker.