Wednesday, December 15, 2010


Referring to those illegals

Last Thursday, I listened to a discussion on NPR’s Talk of the Nation about the use of the terms illegal alien and illegal immigrant. Go read the transcript and/or listen to the program.

There are a few issues conflated in this discussion, so let me separate them out:

  1. There are the terms alien, immigrant, resident, and others, used to describe someone who’s in the United States and is not a citizen. These are sometimes combined, as in resident alien.
  2. There are the modifiers illegal and undocumented (perhaps there are others as well), used to refer to a non-citizen who is here without a required visa, or who has overstayed his visa or violated its terms.
  3. There’s the shortening, illegals, used as a collective term.

Issue number 1 is a complicated one, and is one that’ll get at least 40 answers from 50 people. One person might be perfectly happy to be referred to as a resident alien, while another might bristle at the alien part. Yet another might prefer visitor, saying that if he wanted to be an immigrant he’d apply for citizenship. And so on. We’ll never resolve that, and I don’t aim to try.

As for issue number 3, well: many such shortened collective terms are used derogatorily, and this one’s no exception. He’s one of those illegals, is never meant to be benign, and no protestations of, I didn’t mean anything by it, will convince me of that. So let’s just forget about that one.

But issue 2 is the interesting one: is it insulting to refer to illegal aliens (just picking aliens, here, somewhat arbitrarily)? Here’s how Ms Cepeda characterizes the question on the program:

No. You know what? I think it really is a debate about respect, and it is a debate about being careful how you say things. You know, I think one thing that’s really important to put into this context is that immigrants and Hispanics have felt very, very, very violently opposed by some people who would slur them with a term like illegals. Those things really, you know, go to the heart of the matter.

And, you know, some people who are advocates or even activists for the issue of illegal immigration have kind of gone over and focused on this, because it is important. It’s kind of like the day-to-day thing that could hit you in the donut shop when you least expect it. But, you know, as part of the larger immigration reform conversation, it’s perhaps not the most important conversation that we, as Americans and as new citizens, could be having.

Now, apart from my wanting to quote her hit you in the donut shop idiom, I wanted to highlight her point that it’s just about picking a term, on the one hand, but that it’s having respect for people and making them feel welcome (or at least not making them feel unwelcome) on the other. Generally, the people who refer to illegals don’t care a toss about making those people feel welcome at all. They’d rather see them go home.

Ms Cepeda points us to the legal statutes, and takes the terms from there:

But at the same time, you know, when I talk to DHS, when I talk to immigrations and Customs, immigration services, they say the same thing. We go by the letter of the law. Illegal immigrant, illegal alien, those are terminologies that can be found in the law. And, you know, that’s what they go by.

But it’s not quite as simple as that; here’s how I see it:

When we’re talking generally, about the law, about people, in general, who snuck in, who overstayed their visas... we can refer to them as illegal aliens and that’s pretty clear. We are, by the nature of our discussion, presupposing that there are people who have skirted the immigration laws. What we’re saying is that some people have entered or stayed illegally; referring to them as illegal aliens works.

But on the individual level, it doesn’t work. The police have to deal with illegal aliens, is fine; Joe is an illegal alien, is not: it’s making a judgment on Joe, and that judgment might not be correct. We might not have all the information we need. Joe has not had due process. He may be accused of being an illegal alien, just as he might be accused of any other crime. He might be guilty, and he might not.

On the individual level, referring to someone as an illegal alien is making a presumption of guilt. We prefer to take the approach of a presumption of innocence — something that’s notably lacking in how we treat non-citizens, though I continue to maintain that if presumption of innocence is a basic tenet of our justice system, it’s a human right that needs to be extended to everyone, regardless of what they’re accused of.

Of course, that means that there’s no simple term we can use for an individual that both conveys their status as being accused of illegal entry and does not make a presumption of guilt. That’s OK; I can cope with that. If I have to say, Joe is a citizen of Slobovia who’s accused of entering the U.S. illegally, that works. And that makes it easy to add, He denies the accusation, and explains the confusion with his visa status.


Nathaniel Borenstein said...

This is why conscientious journalists use the word "alleged" to describe indicted-but-not-convicted criminals. How do you feel about about "Joe is allegedly an illegal alien" or "The peace officers beat the crap out of the alleged illegal aliens" -- any better?

For my part, while I share your semantic compunctions, I worry much more about the very notion of an illegal person, which brings to mind the doomed refugees on the SS St. Louis. No country would give them refuge, so they returned to face the Holocaust, which only a few survived.

America was founded as a refuge for desparate people from all over the world. Immigrants made this country great. I think we should welcome all comers, thus rendering moot the question of what to call the unwelcome.

Barry Leiba said...

I mostly agree with you about the desire to have an "open world" with open borders. But few people would say that we should have completely open borders (they will say that we don't want everyone else's criminals and diseases, for example), and that we have to have some immigration laws.

It's certainly true that we've strayed very far from welcoming the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

Nathaniel Borenstein said...

The criminals seem to have worked out ok for the Australians. But I can agree with wanting to keep contagious diseases out. I wouldn't want anyone to think I was an extremist, of course...