Immigration has always been an important political issue, but in recent times it has become more important. After the 2012 election, immigration came to the forefront of political debate, when Obama handily won the Latinos’ vote (71% to Romney’s 27%), supporting the idea that there was a mandate for the Democrats to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill. In June 2013, by a margin of 68-32, the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill. However, immigration reform stalled in the House of Representatives and has yet to be passed. Although immigration reform has faded a bit out of the spotlight, it will still be a major political issue that needs to be tackled. This is especially true in the wake of President Obama’s new executive order on immigration. In support of immigration reform, there have been numerous counter publics that have tried to influence the way Americans and Congressmen or Congresswomen see immigrants. One thing that these groups have done is fight the characterization of “illegal” immigrants and the language surrounding them.
Many people may not care about the language we use to describe immigrants, or they think that it’s just another example of the “Political Correctness Police” patrolling their vocabulary. However, Kenneth Burke, a rhetorical theorist, thinks that words control the way we view reality. This comes in the form of a terministic screen: “a screen composed of terms through which humans perceive the world, and that direct attention away from some interpretations and toward others.” The book cites the example of the abortion debate; pro-choice people call it a fetus, while pro-life people call it a baby. Neither of these words are neutral. The term “fetus” suggests the idea that it’s just a collection of cells; meanwhile, the term “baby” holds the idea that it is a fully-living and fully- functioning human baby. Obviously, these terms change how people view the debate. Most people are not okay with killing a baby, but many are okay with terminating a fetus (Textbook pages 39-41).
Just like words can change how we view abortion, they also can change how we view immigrants. The textbook mentions that pro-immigrant groups are trying to fight the usage of the terms “illegal” and “illegal immigrants” for a multitude of reasons. In fact, a Fox News poll found that 50% of Hispanic voters found those terms offensive. Many people may be confused why immigrants care about these terms; they care because it’s dehumanizing and reduces them to one action. People don’t refer to jaywalkers as illegal walkers, and people most certainly do not refer to jaywalkers as “illegals”. This is why news organizations like CNN, NBC, ABC, and even Fox News Latino have replaced these terms with the term “undocumented immigrant”.
Beyond being offensive, the terms “illegals” and “illegal immigrants” act as a terministic screen. It makes it seem as if these people have done an irreparable offense, because now the person is illegal (instead of the action). This makes it seem unthinkable to suggest that these people could get citizenship (often referred to as “amnesty”, another terministic screen), because these people are “illegal”. This terminology polarizes political debate and makes us ignore the plight of these immigrants. The dehumanization inherent in the term “illegals” makes it much harder to think of these people as human beings. This allows us to ignore their struggles and write them off as lesser, sub-humans, which is wrong. For example, it’s a lot easier to think about deporting immigrants, splitting up families, and putting them in economic hardship when you think about immigrants as “illegals” or criminals, instead of as living, breathing human beings.
I’m sure many of you would correct your friends if you heard them use gay as a derogatory term, the r-word, or the n-word. I’m also sure that many of you would let it slide if you heard them use the I-word in this context. However, next time you hear a friend or relative talk about immigrants and refer to them as “illegal”, you should correct them. You’re not being the political correctness police; you’re humanizing people and correcting language that allows people to think of immigrants as non-human. Language controls the way people think about many issues, including immigration. By changing the words they use to describe immigrants, maybe you can change the way your friends view immigrants.
For the background information cited in the first paragraph: http://www.pewhispanic.org/files/2012/11/2012_Latino_vote_exit_poll_analysis_final_11-07-12.pdf
For some of the arguments and facts cited on the term “illegal”: