Friday, April 14, 2006

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.

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.
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.

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.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

People that come across the American border without going through our Customs Check Points are breaking our laws and are therefore nothing more than criminals. You can discuss how to deal with these people but they are criminals because they have broken our laws. Using negative terms to describe people that purposely and intentionally break our laws seems to me to be only natural. Would you describe a person that broke into your house and rummaged through your possessions as an uninvited visitor? No, you would call them a burglar, a thief, a robber or just plain old criminal.

I can call politicians names that are letting this disorderly conduct happen on our borders. Some of those names include panderer, coward, and exploiter and describe their actions as negligent, illegal and dishonest. I believe that in order to keep our society strong and free we must have an orderly immigration process that includes a migrant worker program.

All this talk of putting up a wall is nonsense. It will take a three pronged approach to securing our borders.
1. A highly trained and robust Border Patrol with leadership that is willing to enforce our border laws.
2. High tech surveillance devices and techniques to be used by the Border Patrol agents.
3. The assurance of back up to the Border Patrol by the National Guard units in each of the Border States.
This is what I call a “dynamic” defense of our borders because a static “fixed position” wall is so stupid and a waste of time and resources. If you don’t understand then go read what the generals of the German Army at the Siegfried line in France at the opening of WWII had to say about fixed defenses. Do you think drug smugglers, terrorists and illegals aren’t fully aware of this too?

1:22 PM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

I like to use illegal immigrant, myself. I think this term comes closest to the cold truth.

I tend to focus on the illegal part.
'After all they are lawbreakers' this is a fact that doesn't change.

When people say, 'imported low-wage worker or guest worker' they are trying to avoid the truth of people sneaking across the border illegaly. Breaking the law.

I'm no fan of the justice system myself, but being born in the U.S. & speaking the language, I'm a bit selfish & would like to see some laws over-turned that have nothing to do with aliens.<---notice how I use the word alien to my advantage

1:34 PM

Blogger Eric Dutton said...

I prefer to use the most familiar terms in cases when those terms aren't misleading. "Illegal immigrant" seems perfecty accurate; they are immigrants, but they have not come here legaly. The term "undocumented worker" is less precise. Have they lost their documents? Are they all working? I'm anxious to her the term "unemployed undocumented worker." Yet the term was still applied as a later substitute for the more familiar "illegal immigrant." NPR seems to know no other term than "undocumented worker" unless spoken with audible quote marks. As an aside, I feel no more need to be protected from "biased media" than I do from biased advertising or biased religions.

I have no negative feelings toward those illegal immigrants already here or even the ones planning to come. If my family were starving and my country offered no ther options for us, yes, I would come to your country and take your job. I wouldn't feel bad about it.
I heard a story about a holocaust victim who was made to choose which one of her sons would be shot or else lose them both. She chose one. I would not call her an accomplice to murder.
Illegal immigration is a crime, but its accomplices are the forign governments who don't address their own economic crises, and our politicians, who will spend the rest of eternity "looking" for a solution that makes EVERYONE happy.

8:24 PM

Blogger IbaDaiRon said...

Anyone who enters the country by any means other than those officially approved has broken the law and is therefore a lawbreaker. Compare the nuances of this word with those of criminal, however. Lumping all illegal immigrants together with thieves and robbers seems both simplistic and excessive to me.

LG, wouldn't it be proponents of tighter borders who are "nativists" and "racists"?

Also, is cotton still picked by hand? We just replaced black slaves with brown ones? How barbaric!

8:43 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Right, Ibidairon, it would be proponents. Thnnks. I have made the correction.

J_G, you completely missed the point. Hanson made a linguistic point that certain of his opponents use misleading language. But so does he. We have the completely apt term "illegal immigrant" but he prefers "illegal alient," which has all sorts of connotations the first doesn't. As for your position on immigration, who do you think you are arguing against? Did I not say I wanted the borders to be protected? Did I take any position whatever as to how to deal with the immigrants who are here already? No, I didn't. So, who are you arguing against?

9:46 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not arguing with you LG. I'm saying using the term illegal immigrant or illegal alien is inconsequential. The term that I see that best fits is "criminal". These people are criminals plain and simple. They can call them whatever else they choose and makes little difference to me. Criminal is the word that ought to be used. That's the point I was trying to make and the comparisons I use were meant to back my use of the word in place of illegal immigrant or illegal alien. I'm sorry if I didn't make myself clear. Sometimes I'm misunderstood because of my abrasive and contentious personality.

Thieves and robbers steal from you IBRon, the crimianls that are violating our laws are estimated to be costing us fifty thousand dollars per person a year. That's education, emergency, health and social services. If that's not equivalent to being robbed at gun point than I can't imagine what is.

11:02 PM

Blogger Mrs. Geezerette said...

JG, you know that I appreciate you and that I consider your contributions to LG's blog valuable. But using your logic in this instance in that all it takes to be a criminal is to break the law, then people like Harriet Tubman for instance would be criminals.

Tubman helped 300 or more blacks gain their freedom when it was against the law (Fugitive Slave Act - 1850) to assist slaves in any way in their effort to gain their freedom. The penalty for breaking this 1850 law involved a hefty fine for each slave you helped and time in prison. We don't call Harriet Tubman a criminal though. We call her a hero. During WWII a ship was named after her.

This may not be the moral equivalent in your mind to people entering this country illegally. But should it become a felony here in the U.S. to assist illegal immigrants in any way, such as with food and shelter, then we would have the moral equivalent.

Now I realize we have a big problem on our hands. But calling all illegal immigrants criminals when we might be granting some of them legal status later on would only fire up the ill feelings which some of us already have toward them.

12:44 AM

Blogger IbaDaiRon said...

Being robbed at knife-point is equivalent. People taking advantage of services we provide them is not. Equating all forms of lawbreaking with true criminal activity is just silly. The fact that we extend our laws and services to cover and protect even illegal immigrants is actually something to our credit. Or would you deny them and show the world the true nature of our humanity? More vigilance at the borders is needed. But even that is nothing more than a preventative. Helping the countries which are the sources of the immigrants to improve their economies and standards of living would probably be more in the direction of a real cure.

Where did you find that $50K estimate, by the way? At 20 million illegal immigrants the total outlay comes to one trillion dollars. A little less than half of the federal government's annual outlays of late. Hmm, that can't be right, can it? What numbers did that estimate happen to use for the illegal immigrant population and the total amount of money expended in providing services for them? (If those aren't made clear somewhere, the fifty-thousand per capita figure is meaningless.)

12:47 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

It is pointless to discuss this issue with someone who actually belives that "These people are criminals plain and simple." So, I won't.

9:41 AM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

I recently heard illegal imigrants refered to as; law-abiding illegals.

You know, they've done an amazing job of organizing protests & also surviving in this country illegally. To bad some of that energy couldn't go toward doing something in the country that they are citizens of.

Her is my solution to the border control problem.
Take a couple of miles strip on our side & turn it into military training grounds. Think of all that manpower & those weapons.

Susieq; Was Harriet Tugman only a crimminal in the confederate states? I can't find the info.

11:54 AM

Blogger Mrs. Geezerette said...

LT, go here to read about the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. It amended an Act made earlier (1793?) which was not as severe.


You can read about Harriet Tubman by doing a search for her.

And now back to hiding all those Easter eggs for all my grandkids.

12:37 PM

Blogger The MetaKong said...

What we need to do is round up all those radical extremists who see people as "people," instead of "citizens." Any turd who isn't an America shouldn't be in America, Jesus wanted it that way. What we should do is get rid of all those perpetually criminal rebels who refuse to serve Government and God, clean this place up, I don't care how we do it - lock 'em up, leave 'em rot, get the oven goin', smoke 'em out uh their foxholes, chop 'em down...

We need to exterminate anyone who refuses to submit to our dog eat dog, hierarchical vision of order, of what is, was, and always will be; those who are against us are weak, we might as well destroy them in the name of God, anyway, anyhow.

It's what Jesus would want.

Peace out,


1:23 PM

Blogger The MetaKong said...

Oh...I forgot...

Happy Easter?


1:29 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm done posting here.

4:34 PM

Blogger Full Metal Attorney said...

Happy Easter a day late to everyone.

J_G, I also want to note that I think your presence on this blog is extremely valuable. But I must go with the majority here in saying that illegal immigrant does not equal criminal. The term "criminal" generally has a certain legal meaning. There are "criminal" statutes and there are other statutes. A person who drives 5 miles per hour over the speed limit is breaking the law, but generally they are not "criminals." A criminal statute, I believe, generally involves penalties of jail time, and speeding, as well as crossing the border illegally, do not involve jail time. I could be wrong, though.

Great blog, by the way, LG. I think you have done precisely what I try to do with my issue blogs, which is to narrow the discussion to the issues of actual contention. And you have implicitly done something that I often do, which is to state that you realize that the problem is so complicated that you cannot come to a conclusion.

I'm definitely going to have to go wth the majority here in saying that "illegal immigrant" is the most accurate term to use. It's too bad we don't have a more neutral term than "illegal" to use, because it has such a negative connotation. But I suppose a negative connotation is fair in this context.

12:23 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe we can offer them citizenship with a vasectomy or tube tying operation. Like, OK, we'll give you citizenship, but you can't breed over here. That's the deal...like it or not.

6:06 PM

Blogger IbaDaiRon said...

But isn't "yearning to breed free" one of the reasons people come to the US?

7:46 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The term "illegal immigrant" is incorrect when applied to anyone who has enetered the US illegally AND has not begun a legitimate immigration process. Many Americans are unaware of this because they have not had to immigrate to the US.

An "immigrant" is an individual who has begun or completed a LEGAL PROCESS; an "illegal immigrant" implies a person who is both illegally present and has begun a legal immigration process, such people do exist but are actually rare.

The term "illegal alien" is therefore used for those who enter the US illegally (ie do not pass through an immigration checkpoint OR provide false documentation) and then proceed to live and survive here with no intention (often no option) to apply for legal immigration.

This is how USCIS use the term and I for one strongly disapprove of attaching the term "immigrant" to someone who simply is not; because unless they have submitted documents and forms (and there are only a few VERY STRICT ways to do this) they CANNOT be an immigrant or pending immigrant.


2:58 PM


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