Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

19 April 2006

Illegal Immigration

This morning there was a completely asinine article on KPCC about the semantics of the immigration debate in this country. Now, they aired a commentary by Nicole Nelson on the same station on June 6th of last year that covered (more or less) the same topic, and I thought that was a well thought-out and nice bit of opinion, but today's article had me pissed. If you didn't hear it, I don't know what to tell you because I'm having an inept time at the computer this evening and I can't find a link. Anyway, the gist of the article was an exploration of the words we use to describe Mexicans who come to the United States without following proper immigration channels. The phrases they specifically looked at were "illegal alien," "undocumented immigrant," "migrant worker" and various combinations of these.

Now, on the immigration debate, I think I have a sort of typical liberal stance. I have no particular problem with amnesty or some kind of amnesty program. I think any nutjob in the House of Representatives who wants to round people up and separate families is on total crack. I do think we need better border security, but I don't see why we don't welcome people to our country. "This country was built and made strong by immigrants" and all that jazz. But this is neither here nor there, because, the KPCC article wasn't interested in discussing issues but was interested in discussing the semantics of the issues.

I feel like "undocumented immigrant" and "undocumented migrant worker" are both nice, useful phrases that have a liberal bend but are also accurate.

I understand why a phrase like "illegal alien" would be upsetting to people, but when I think about it, the phrase "illegal alien" is just as apt as "undocumented worker." The immigrants we are discussing are here, in actual fact, illegally. So, the phrase is correct, right? The people we are discussing are, in fact, aliens, as well: a strange people in a strange land, to borrow from the Bible. And then I think, "Why do people find this phrase in particular so inflammatory?"
I would venture that the answer is that "illegal alien" sounds bad. After years and years, the phrase "illegal aliens" has come to be synonymous with invaders, criminals, people stealing the jobs of Americans, etc. etc. An illegal alien is somebody we know: somebody we recognize but don't. Illegal aliens are the enemy.
But undocumented immigrants: you don't know those people that well, but they're good to get to know. Let's keep out those illegal aliens, but let's all open our arms to the undocumented migrant workers! This is spin, plain and simple. And it's spin from the left. Illegal aliens, undocumented workers: we're all talking about the same thing. These are the same people who want a better life and want to work hard and who broke this country's laws to come here to do those things. They are illegal aliens and they are undocumented immigrants. And who cares what we call them, what we need to do is stop talking about them as though they were something foreign to us: something we don't understand and people we don't know. These people are in our community. They are a part of it and contribute to our societies. The spin has got to go, though. It's not at issue and this debate is more important than the little buzz-words we coin to make things sound better or worse than they are.