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Will New Words Change How We Think About Illegal Immigration?

Protest against the legal treatment of immigrants in Santa Cruz, California (Manfred Werner/Wikimedia Commons) Protest against the legal treatment of immigrants in Santa Cruz, California (Manfred Werner/Wikimedia Commons)The Associated Press is dropping the term, ‘illegal immigrant,’ and the New York Times may soon follow suit (though the Times says its change won’t be so sweeping). The Times public editor says “language evolves,” which is undoubtedly does. But so do politics and public attitudes. They more than language evolution seem to be pushing news organizations away from the term ‘illegal immigrant’ right now.

Two groups have campaigned for this change: Drop the I-word and Define American. Monica Novoa, who has run them both, says the use of the word, ‘illegal,’ implies that it is legal terminology, which it is not. She says calling a person illegal, “gives the impression that the whole entity of a person can be illegal.” She prefers ‘undocumented’ or ‘unauthorized.’

This comes at a key moment in the history of immigration in the United States. In Washington, a ‘Group of Eight’ lawmakers are working on a bipartisan immigration reform plan that is likely to offer a legal path to citizenship to millions of undocumented immigrants. Republican Senator John McCain, one of the Group of Eight, has been asked– and has refused– to drop his use of ‘illegal immigrant.’ Republicans opposed to immigration reform use stronger terms still– like ‘illegal alien'(which is still the term favored by the federal immigration agency, ICE). Most Democrats now avoid ‘illegal’ and ‘alien.’

So, what term can be used in place of ‘illegal immigrant’? Here are some suggestions from non-English language US media in this article from New American Media:

    Korean: ‘illegal overstayers’
    Punjabi: ‘living in hiding’
    Tagalog slang: TNT (‘tago ng tago,’ or ‘always in hiding’)

This 2011 report from Michel Marizco of the Fronteras desk offers some more suggestions:

‘Illegal immigrant’ isn’t the only expression that people can’t agree on. There’s ‘amnesty’ too, as discussed in a recent podcast.

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“Amnesty”: Sensitive Word in the Immigration Debate

Kids hold signs in front of Los Angeles City Hall, demanding general amnesty for all immigrants (Jonathan McIntosh/Wikimedia Commons)

Kids hold signs in front of Los Angeles City Hall, demanding general amnesty for all immigrants (Jonathan McIntosh/Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s a guest post from my Big Show colleague Jason Margolis

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the word amnesty as an act “by which pardon is granted to a large group of individuals.” Many immigrant rights activists argue: that’s not the right word for what’s being talked about today, with regards to the question of what to do with the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the US.

“Hmmm, amnesty, we don’t say amnesty cause it’s not amnesty,” said Juanita Valdez-Cox, the executive director of the immigrant-rights organization LUPE in the Rio Grande Valley, a heavily Hispanic area in the southeast corner of Texas along the Mexican border. Valdez-Cox has been working with low income Mexican immigrants for three decades.

When President Reagan granted the last amnesty in 1986, 3 million undocumented immigrants were given legal status just by registering with the government.

“What is being talked about (today), is totally not amnesty,” she said. “When people have to pay so much money – because there’s going to be huge fees for having broken the law and coming in illegally – when you have to go to class, when you have to learn the language, that is fine, but the thing is don’t call it amnesty. It is not amnesty. It’s earned, you have to work for it, you have to pay for it. It’s an earned legalization program.”

Just down the road in Alamo, Texas, Michael Seifert, the coordinator of the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network, said the term amnesty is more commonly used for criminals and former dictators.

“And then we use that same word to talk about, oh we’re giving amnesty to the 11 million people who were brave enough, who were responsible enough, who were bright enough to come to this country and make a living, and create a living, and create neighborhoods.”

I asked Seifert what term he would prefer.

“I would say legalize them, yea. Regularize their status,” he said.

“‘Regularization, normalization,’ I mean it’s almost like you’re stretching not to say the obvious word that everybody uses,” said Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank that favors tighter controls on immigration.

Krikorian said those other other terms are fine to use as well. But, he said, “Amnesty was the word that was used for legalizing illegal immigrants for a long time and still is. It’s simply a standard word for the process of letting those who are out of legal immigration status get right with the law.”

Krikorian said surveys have found that the term amnesty has a negative connotation. It can sound like undocumented immigrants are getting something for nothing. And so, Krikorian said, those of in favor of an amnesty avoid using the word.

“People really, really didn’t like the word amnesty, and needed some euphemism in order to be fooled into to supporting it.”

A few weeks ago, President Obama delivered a 25-minute speech about comprehensive immigration reform. He never used the term amnesty or legalization.

Here’s how he spoke about the 11 million people living in the US illegally: “For comprehensive immigration reform to work, it must be clear from the outset that there is a pathway to citizenship.”

But just because the president isn’t saying it, that doesn’t mean the word amnesty won’t be used a lot in the coming months.

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