Banning the Term ‘Illegal Immigrant’ Won’t Change the Stigma

If you update the language, the negative connotations will simply migrate to the new term

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Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

Immigrant students hold signs at a demonstration calling for an end to deportations in Los Angeles on June 15, 2012.

Last week the Associated Press announced that it would ban the term illegal immigrant from its stylebook. They are among many organizations and immigration advocates of late who argue that the term is uncivil, or even defamatory.

(MORE: Immigration Debate: The Problem with the Word “Illegal”)

Whether there is a point in that or not – and quite a few, including immigrants, think there isn’t – the main problem here is a matter of how language works. The idea is that banning “illegal immigrant” will change how people think, that using the term undocumented immigrant will improve the public opinion of the people in question. But it won’t.

The problem is that language dances much more lightly on thought than we often suppose, and in a battle between thought and language, thought has a way of winning out. Words’ meanings, even when crafted to bend away from opinion, drift back to where we didn’t want them to be, like a fly keeps landing on you after you swat it away. This has happened to previous attempts to expunge a term of its negative meaning.

Consider affirmative action, now so conventional we rarely stop to parse what the actual words comprising it mean. “Affirming” what? What kind of “action”? The term was a magnificently artful and gracious construction of the 1960s, giving a constructive, positive air to an always controversial policy.

Note, however, that political opponents soon came to associate the term with the same negative feelings they had about the policy it referred to, such that today it is uttered with scorn by many. Racial preferences was the chosen replacement – but now it is now as loaded as affirmative action was.

(MORE: How Affirmative Action Backfires At Universities)

Words cannot escape reality. A similar thing happened with welfare, a constructive euphemism compared to once common terms of disparagement such as the dole. Once again, though, surly associations long ago settled back down on the term. By now we have to think a bit to process that the original meaning of welfare, in the political context, was well-being. Notably, another term of art for the same policy, home relief, rapidly took on the same kinds of associations.

If an issue commonly attracts dismissive attitudes, those attitudes simply migrate to any new term that is created. This has happened to urgently intended terms such as women’s liberation, (now feminism) and crippled, later handicapped, only to be replaced by disabled. 

Changing the terms can perhaps get a conversation started, rather like God getting the globe spinning under deist philosophy. But fast forward about 10 years and undocumented immigrant will have taken on the same dismissive air that illegal immigrant has now. Expect arguments, then, that “undocumented” is itself a slur – especially since some are already making them now.  If you change only the language, real life catches up. What really creates change is argumentation. If we really want to improve the lot of this group, we’d do better to attend to the fate of the President’s immigration bill about to be presented to Congress.

It’s harder to change reality than to play with words. But then, who thought real life wasn’t hard?

MORETIME’s Cover Story: Not Legal, Not Leaving

55 comments
barfinkl1
barfinkl1

Here we go with more PC...you can spin it any way you want, but they're here illegally, so how do you remove the "stigma" from illegal immigrant.  Tired of all the fear of saying something will offend someone.  It is what it is.  If you don't like being called illegal, then get LEGAL!

morg0101
morg0101

In other words... As long as an ideological belief has the unfair and unbalanced mainstream media support by those most aligned in common ideological interest... rational judgement has again and again throughout history unfortunately not proven to win out despite its degree of truth.

morg0101
morg0101

Banning any term that through time, debate and analysis proved righteous enough to elicit a label (illegal immigrant) will always eventually fall to the uneducated, irrational title wave of "information" predicated by elitist controlled popular opinion if they indeed have that power.

morg0101
morg0101

Banning any term that through time, debate and analysis proved righteous enough to elicit a label (illegal immigrant) will still eventually fall to the uneducated, irrational conclusion predicated by elitist controlled popular opinion if they indeed have that power.

AriaOtherly
AriaOtherly

Illegal immigrant is too nice a word, so go ahead and ban it.

Just call them what they are criminals, law breakers.

CharlesEdwardBrown
CharlesEdwardBrown

What part of Illegal do people not understand? These criminals should be deported and not rewarded.

boldandworthy
boldandworthy

Wow, so you are on the minority destruction tour, first they use you to destroy immigrants who migrated here and use you to destroy not only our community but your own self, when you allow yourself to be used to hurt others, you do not escape hurting yourself.

washnwerwolf
washnwerwolf

How about using Illegal Alien. It is factual and correct in every aspect. Or if that is to harsh, Workforce Invader. Job Stealer. Benefit Sponge. I know, the perfect phrase is Disease Vector.

“Today, legal immigrants must demonstrate that they are free of communicable diseases and drug addiction to qualify for lawful permanent residency green cards,” writes Cosman, a medical lawyer, who formerly taught medical students at the City University of New York. “Illegal aliens simply cross our borders medically unexamined, hiding in their bodies any number of communicable diseases.”

Many illegals entering this country have tuberculosis, according to the report.


Read more at http://www.wnd.com/2005/03/29329/#KptV8lQuVoHZkFx0.99

A 2005 Mother Jones Magazine interview with Dr. Lee Reichman of The New Jersey TB Clinic stated: "In the 1990's, cases among foreign born Americans rose from 29 percent to 41.6 percent. Antibiotic resistant strains from Mexico have migrated to Texas. Since three years ago, 16,000 new cases of TB were discovered in the United States. Half were foreign born. Strains of TB once only found in Mexico have migrated to the border states of Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and California. It will move north as illegal aliens work in restaurants as cooks, dishwashers, and food handlers. We sit on the edge of a potential catastrophe."

http://www.examiner.com/article/are-illegal-aliens-bringing-the-new-hiv-aids-to-this-country

http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2003/03/patient-predator

So yeah. There is a reason that borders are supposed to be protected. I was doing a clinical rotation down in the South West of USA when they were screening EVERYONE in the hospital for TB. We had virtually eradicated TB in the US. Now it is making a comeback.

CharlesScamardo
CharlesScamardo

Illegal Immigrant should be a stigma. YOU ARE HERE against the law of the country you are trying to enter. Political Correctness madness.

Peace_2_All
Peace_2_All

You can try and support changing the language and terms in a "semantic drift" kind of way all you want, however it still won't change the reality of the situation.

Peace...

CharleyX
CharleyX

Lol!  it's time all those wet backs were sent back to whatever crap-hole country they crawled out of.

valentine.godoflove
valentine.godoflove

illegal immigrant means.......jerkoff....that you croseed the border into the United States and are here illegally......

no matter how you change the wording.....a monkey is still a monkey.....a duck is still a duck.....a cow is still a cow

but there are some among us who want to change the language by lying.....for 50 years in a row......theyn the new generation will not know the difference......for they are low informed and stupid anyway.....

valentine.....comedian.....lokl

tbbaot
tbbaot

Imposing political correctness in an attempt to shut down debate will never change the facts. Illegal immigration is illegal in every nation on the planet. It's the same as breaking into your neighbors home and helping yourself to his food. 

wigglwagon
wigglwagon

No matter what they call themselves, they are criminals.

DavidRichard
DavidRichard

Isn't it about time we started ignoring such indoctrinating BS , find a way to stop supporting the politicians that are bankrupting and encouraging stupid non-citizens to occupy our country?

babycheeks
babycheeks

This country has lost it's mind. We are being manipulated to use twisted words that deny reality. How can we ever solve our   problem if we cannot talk about it in plain truthful language. If someone enters the country illegally, they are illegally here and that person is an illegal immigrant. Playing word games to tone down the offense of their criminal act is insulting the intelligence of us all and just adds to the suspicion that the proponents of "reform" cannot be trusted to act in good faith.

BajaRat
BajaRat

The correct legal term for these lawbreaking miscreants is "illegal aliens" despite what the PC BS Associated Press says. They have the same socialist agenda as tin pot dictator Comrade ObaMao, and should no longer be considered a legitimate news source since they are obviously using "spin" rather than reporting actual news.

apchronicles
apchronicles

So if someone is caught driving without a license they should called illegal driver? Language does have power and it evokes thoughts, feelings, concepts and ideas. If language was did not matter then we would not care how our politicians phrase their platforms, how our leaders address the nation or how we are spoke to and about. 

He who controls the language controls the conversation!

eafarron
eafarron

Let's not offend the drug dealers out there anymore either. Perhaps UNLICENCED PHARMACIST would represent the Associated Press in its twisted way of thinking a wrong being correct. 

RickHunter
RickHunter

"But fast forward about 10 years and undocumented immigrant will have taken on the same dismissive air that illegal immigrant has now."


Duh... you don't have to wait 10 years... we're already there!  Undocumented Immigrant = ILLEGAL!  Anyone with a half a functioning brain cell already knows this.

rohit57
rohit57

How would people feel about changing the term rapist to "undocumented sexual partner"?

I won't deny that there is a huge MORAL difference between the one and the other.  But they ARE both breaking the law and it is disturbing to have people invent terms which imply, in effect, that breaking the law is OK.  It really isn't/

seattleman1969
seattleman1969

When will you people get it, the term illegal immigrant is appropriate and correct. These people are immigrating, IE: moving to a new place, crossing our border, illegally, IE: without permission or clearance against or contrary to the laws of our nation. trying to make it all touchy feely by changing the nomenclature doesn't change the act or the facts. What they are doing is illegal, and an affront to all of those immigrants who have waited patiently and gone through the process of properly being granted citizenship which includes indoctrination into our nation's legal system and English language classes.