Immigration debate: words as images

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Dec 27 14:03:07 UTC 2006

Those on both sides of issue get caught up in words as images.
By Juan Castillo


Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Before anger over proposed U.S. laws to crack down on illegal immigration
boiled over into nationwide street demonstrations last spring, Mary
Gonzlez made her point silently, but with words. Offended by what she
considered an immigrant-bashing climate at the University of Texas, the
23-year-old UT student leader fashioned a T-shirt that she spray-painted
with a stripped-down message "No Human Being is Illegal." Gonzlez prefers
the term "undocumented immigrant" when referring to people not authorized
to visit, live or work in the United States.

Brian K. Diggs

Art Baisley, a 46-year-old Taylor real estate agent, says that's political
correctness gone amok. "That sounds a whole lot better than 'illegal
alien,' but if you put a dress on a pig, it's still a pig," said Baisley,
a member of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, the civilian border patrol
group. He prefers "illegal alien"  a term that the government uses but
that many people consider a pejorative and is irritated when he hears talk
about immigration that doesn't specify whether it is legal or illegal. The
often volatile disagreements over what to call the nation's estimated 12
million illegal immigrants open a window onto the battleground of words
waged in the immigration reform debate, a landscape strewn with language
the various sides choose to frame their positions.

On one extreme end of the argument are those who unequivocally oppose
illegal immigration and use terms such as "illegals" and "amnesty," often
punctuating arguments with the question: "What part of illegal don't you
understand?" Those at the other extreme generally advocate new laws
allowing more people to enter the country legally and giving those already
here a chance to right their legal status. It prefers "undocumented
immigrant" and other terms stressing immigrants' contributions and
economic forces of supply and demand. "They are human beings, and they are
valued in God's sight as much, as equal to each of us," said Bishop
Gregory Aymond of the Catholic Diocese of Austin, who prefers
"undocumented immigrant."

Far from being just a bruising skirmish about semantics, the words help
determine how politicians and the public view illegal immigration's
complexities. The language fuels controversy in sound bites that rally the
like-minded, rile opponents and seek to influence public policy. The terms
have considerable impact, language experts say, because we process their
meanings through what scientists call frames or metaphors. "We understand
the world not in terms of logic, but in terms of images"  and metaphors,
said Otto Santa Ana, a linguistics expert at the University of California,
Los Angeles. For that reason, partisans in political debates frequently
use terms that fan emotions and evoke images to suit their positions.
Experts say the metaphors and images can be truthful or not, or somewhere
in between, making finding solutions daunting. "We always construct
politics in terms of language," Santa Ana said.

Battle of words

Few debates are more politically charged than the one surrounding illegal
immigration. Being in the country without authorization is currently a
civil violation, but in late 2005 a U.S. House bill sought to make felons
of immigrants who are in the country illegally and those who aid them.
Last spring, millions took to the streets to protest the bill, which
ultimately stalled. "No Human Being is Illegal" became a familiar message
at the demonstrations in Austin and across the country. Those who object
to the terms "illegal immigrant," "illegal alien" or "illegals" say
opponents deliberately use them in order to define a person as inherently
criminal. "They're trying to gain the upper hand, and they're trying to
scare people like me, who come from white, suburban, middle-class
backgrounds," said Zack Hall, a 19-year-old UT student from Frisco.
Gonzlez, whose "No Human Being is Illegal" T-shirt frequently draws
queries and even the occasional dirty look, said she tells others "that
crossing the border without documentation is an illegal act, but the
person isn't."

Critics charge that proponents of terms such as "undocumented immigrants"
deliberately seek to deflect from the illegality of violating U.S.
immigration laws and to imply that the violator has done nothing wrong.
"It's kind of a great euphemism, and I have to hand it to those who want
some kind of amnesty for illegals to have come up with that," said Steven
Camarota with the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based
research group that advocates curbs on immigration. What's offensive or
inaccurate, he and others ask, about calling someone who's broken
immigration laws an "illegal alien" or an "illegal immigrant"? In the
minds of many who object to variations of terms incorporating "illegal,"
perhaps none packs more emotional wallop than "illegals," when used alone
and as a noun. Camarota said it's a reasonable term to use as shorthand.

Like Baisley, he considers the term "immigrant" alone, without specifying
legal or illegal, confusing and wrong. Given the country's immigrant
history, "it could lead one to ask, 'Why wouldn't we let them stay?' "
Camarota said. In 1992, Santa Ana began researching media coverage of
immigration issues, concluding that the metaphors used articulated an
anti-immigrant slant, primarily by characterizing immigrants as animals.
"People were lured, they were herded by coyotes, hunted by the migras
(slang for immigration officers), lured into traps, devoured by labor,"
Santa Ana said. "They are beasts of burden, and we have to ferret them
out." Santa Ana said that media use "illegal immigrant" to describe
someone who is in the country without authorization. "But you don't call
employers criminal bosses," he said.

Terms employed by the other side can be just as loaded, he said. Take
"undocumented immigrant." "There is something more than simply leaving
your wallet at home in Mexico involved in crossing the border," Santa Ana
said. Instead of "illegal" or "undocumented," Santa Ana said, journalists
should use the term "unauthorized." "It doesn't have the connotation
inherent of being a felon," he said. Although many on each side of the
debate insist on using their preferred terms, they agree that the war of
words limits abilities to find solutions. Aymond, the Catholic bishop,
said those who favor terms such as "undocumented immigrant" acknowledge
"that there is an illegality." But dialogue must move beyond that, he

Camarota said the real question remains what to do about immigration. "I
don't want to have a debate about terminology," he said. "I want to have a
debate about substance."

Fighting words in immigration debate

Perhaps the biggest battle in the war of words over illegal immigration
surrounds what to call the people who are unauthorized to visit, live or
work in the United States. But many other terms also fuel the fire. Here's
a look at some of them:

'Earned legalization' and 'amnesty'  Along with 'path to citizenship,'
'earned legalization' is the term advocates of comprehensive immigration
reform generally use to describe proposals allowing illegal immigrants to
become legal permanent residents and attain citizenship. They contend that
immigrants would 'earn' their legal status by paying stiff fines, taxes
and Social Security; learning the language; passing citizenship tests; and
demonstrating they have no criminal records. Critics say 'earned
legalization' is simply another way to describe amnesty or forgiveness for
breaking the law, particularly if the immigrant doesn't have to leave the
country first.

'Open borders'  Opponents of illegal immigration often say those who favor
'earned legalization' are for 'open borders.' Advocates deny this and say
the label mischaracterizes them as looking soft on border security.

'Invasion'  The term some advocates of enforcement-only measures use to
describe the surge in illegal immigration. Critics charge that the term
wrongly carries sinister implications and depicts immigrants who come to
work here as dangerous to the country and its way of life.


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