To Use Or Lose The Term 'Illegal Immigrant'

Guest host Celeste Headlee and the Barbershop guys talk about a plea to the media to stop using the term "illegal immigrant." One undocumented activist says it unfairly criminalizes people. The guys also weigh in on the end of the NFL referee lockout.

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

I'm Celeste Headlee and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. And it's time for the weekly visit to the Barbershop, where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds.

Sitting in the chairs for a shape-up this week, writer and culture critic Jimi Izrael. Also, Arsalan Iftikhar, a civil rights attorney. They're both with me here in Washington. Joining us from Boston, we have Neil Minkoff. He's a doctor turned health care consultant and a contributor to National Review magazine. And Fernando Vila joins us from our bureau in New York. He's the managing editor at Univision News in English.

Take it away, Jimi.

JIMI IZRAEL: Hey, C Headlee in the place to be with A train and the IZ. What's good?

ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: What's happening?

IZRAEL: This is your first time in, right?

HEADLEE: It is, indeed.

IZRAEL: Well, welcome.

HEADLEE: The first time actually being in instead of just listening.

IZRAEL: Well, welcome.

HEADLEE: Thank you.

IZRAEL: Fellows, welcome to the shop. How we doing?

IFTIKHAR: Hey, hey, hey.

NEIL MINKOFF: We're good. We're good.

FERNANDO VILA: Good, man.

IZRAEL: All right. Well, let's get started with what everybody wants to talk about. The Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns game last night and forget the players. Everyone was tuning in to watch the refs. The National Football League reached a deal to end the lockout with the regular officials this week and people were glad to see the old guys in stripes last night. Celeste, we've got a clip. Yeah?

HEADLEE: Of course, we do. The officials received a standing ovation when they first took to the field. Here's NFL Network's Rich Eisen talking about their return.

RICH EISEN: Yes. The real NFL officials are back in business tonight here in Baltimore, where the crowd is showing them unprecedented amounts of love before kickoff, after which it is expected to take all of about 10 minutes for the same fans to call the same refs a bunch of bums, thus returning order to our sports world.

IFTIKHAR: Amen.

IZRAEL: Yeah.

IFTIKHAR: Amen. Poetic justice.

IZRAEL: Thanks. Thanks for that, Celeste. Now, the Ravens, of course, won that game 23 to 16. Sorry about that, WCPN. Shout out to Dave Kanzeg. Anyway, the real refs came back days after Monday night's game. That's when the Seattle Seahawks beat the Green Bay Packers on a bad call that had fans furious.

So NFL commissioner Goodell, you know, he said that that game might have, quote, "pushed the parties further along," end quote, but it wasn't the soul reason for the settlement. Wink, wink. A train.

IFTIKHAR: Yes, sir.

IZRAEL: Arsalan Iftikhar, there's no love lost between your Chicago Bears and the Packers, but even folks in Chi-town were reportedly feeling their pain Monday night. Does the settlement - does it make up for all of this - all the bad calls?

MINKOFF: No, no, no, no.

IZRAEL: No, really?

IFTIKHAR: You know, the Monday night massacre, the Monday night football fiasco that we saw when the Seattle Seahawks were given a victory over the Green Bay Packers, you know, will go down in the annals of NFL history as one of the most controversial calls ever, probably since the 2002 infamous tuck rule with the Patriots and Tom Brady against the...

MINKOFF: No, no, no. They got that right.

IFTIKHAR: Dude, no. Come on.

MINKOFF: They got that right. I'm in Boston.

IFTIKHAR: Anyway...

MINKOFF: They got that - I was at that game.

IZRAEL: Hold on.

IFTIKHAR: Now, what's really...

IZRAEL: Go ahead, Arsalan.

IFTIKHAR: You know, for me, I think, you know, and all NFL football fans out there, you know, it's going to be good to be able to yell at some real refs, you know, for once and it's nice that the real refs will be able to brush off their artificial hips and get started here before...

IZRAEL: The greatest travesty in NFL history. I'm glad you're not given to hyperbole, Arsalan. Dr. Neil. Neil Minkoff, you're our free...

MINKOFF: You know, I thought that...

IZRAEL: You're a free market kind of guy. Did the league just not understand how much the real refs were worth?

MINKOFF: Yeah. That's exactly what happened is that...

IZRAEL: Oh, OK.

MINKOFF: I don't think anybody did. You know, I was certainly not predicting. I don't think - I think everybody predicted that there would be a drop-off, but that steep a drop-off? I mean, maybe the worst officiated game in NFL history was Sunday night and it held that title for under 24 hours. I mean, it was so much worse than anybody could imagine and the outcry because games - it was affecting the win-loss totals. It actually gave the referees something that I didn't think they could ever have when this started: leverage.

IZRAEL: OK. Well, all right. I guess I might be in with that, then. OK. Maybe it was the worst. Fernando Vila, you know, are you glad to see the NFL and the referees? You know, they've kissed and made up. Are you happy about that?

VILA: Oh, of course I'm happy. I mean, I - it's just - there's got to be some sick referee god sitting up in heaven sort of laughing because of - you know, referees are the most abused people, I think, on the planet constantly and they were just - people were just clamoring to have them back and it was just kind of a strange poetic justice. And I think I agree - I agree with Neil. I mean, I don't think anyone expected to see how difficult it is, actually, to referee a - to officiate an NFL game.

I mean, the game is so fast and there are so many rules and it's - there's just so many players flying in every direction. I mean, it must be really, really difficult and I guess this proved it.

IZRAEL: I think Browns fans are the most abused people on the planet, but...

VILA: Well...

IZRAEL: Sorry, WCPN. But - well, I mean, I guess all's well that ends well. Right, A train? I mean, can we forgive and forget now?

IFTIKHAR: Yeah. You know, all I hope now is that, you know, maybe a bad instant replay call will, you know, make the Israelis and Palestinians, you know, finally kiss and make up after 60 years.

IZRAEL: All right. Well, let's move on.

IFTIKHAR: Segue.

IZRAEL: Let's move on. Right? From bad calls on the field to bad calls in politics. In Boston, some campaign staffers for Republican Senator Scott Brown were caught on camera chanting and making tomahawk chopping gestures at a rally and it was intended as a dig at Scott's opponent, Elizabeth Warren. Right, Celeste?

HEADLEE: Yeah, that's right. Elizabeth Warren is the Democratic candidate. Her claim of Native American ancestry is being questioned by the Brown campaign. They say she misrepresented herself as a minority in order to get tenure at Harvard. So let's take a clip - listen to a clip of what actually happened at the rally.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE CHANTING)

IZRAEL: Wow. Thanks, Celeste. Yeah. That's problematic, so the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation asked Senator Brown to apologize, calling his staff's actions, quote, "downright racist." Brown initially said it's Warren who should apologize for claiming to be a person of color. As if. But, later, his office issued a statement taking the staff members to task.

Guys, what do you think? Was it racist? Dr. Neil Minkoff, you're a Bostonian. Kick it.

MINKOFF: Yeah. So let me just - I'm going to agree with the professor from Purdue from the last segment and say that context is everything here. I can't tell you how many jokes people make up here in the supermarket, the gas station, whatever about the 132nd Indian thing. I mean, I don't think the tomahawk chop was racist when Diddy used it in the "Bad Boys 2" soundtrack because of the context. I don't think it was racist when Jimmy Carter used to do it at Atlanta Braves games because of the context.

They weren't trying to demean Indians. They were trying to make fun of Elizabeth Warren and it was just a little bit of silliness that - it wasn't racist. It was just stupid.

IZRAEL: So, wait. So, wait. So racism has a - it has a context. Is that what you're saying, Dr. Neil?

MINKOFF: Well, no. I'm saying that this thing was not meant to demean Native Americans. It was meant to...

IZRAEL: But it does.

MINKOFF: ...demean a candidate.

IFTIKHAR: Wait.

IZRAEL: By virtue of the fact that you're doing it, you're demeaning an entire people, but if you don't intend to demean an entire people, then it's OK?

MINKOFF: Well, no. That's why I say - no. That's why I said the intent mattered. They weren't trying to be racist. That's why I said it was stupid. They weren't - I'm not defending the action. I thought it was stupid. I just don't think that it was defined to be malicious against a group of people.

IFTIKHAR: So...

IZRAEL: Go ahead, A train.

IFTIKHAR: This is Arsalan. Neil, so if the fact pattern were a little different, let's say that Elizabeth Warren had claimed that she was 132nd African-American and Scott Brown staffers came to a rally in black face. Would you still think that context mattered there? I'll wait.

MINKOFF: You know what? I'll be honest. Probably not. I don't think so, but I think that the tomahawk chop - the tomahawk chop, I think, has become part of - you know...

IZRAEL: Careful. Easy.

MINKOFF: But it's done at so many stadiums for so many years that I don't think people recognize it as such.

IFTIKHAR: They stopped doing it at Atlanta Braves games.

IZRAEL: Wow. Dr. Neil...

IFTIKHAR: The Seminoles still do it and everyone knows that the Seminole fans are bad people, so...

IZRAEL: You know what? I'd forgotten what a bastion of diversity Boston was. Thank you for reminding me, Dr. Neil. Fernando Vila, weigh in here, man.

VILA: You know, of course, it was racist. I mean, I just - I think that it's just so bizarre this campaign - that this is the issue. Right? I mean, this is what everyone will remember from this campaign for senator of Massachusetts. It's just a really bizarre thing and I don't know. I really don't know what to make of it other than that it's just - it's sad that this is what we're debating.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. You're listening to the weekly Barbershop roundtable. We're joined by writer Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar, contributor to National Review Neil Minkoff, and Univision journalist Fernando Vila. Back to you, Jimi.

IZRAEL: Thanks, Celeste. All right. Well, we turn from diversity 101 on the campaign trail to dueling dictionaries for your morning paper. Antonio Jose Vargas is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist turned activist and he was called on news organizations to stop - or he has called on news organizations to stop using the term illegal immigrants.

Now, Vargas himself came to the U.S. as a child and didn't understand that he was undocumented for years. Fernando Vila, Univision surveyed people on using the term versus undocumented immigrant. How did people respond?

VILA: Well, just because we surveyed undocumented people...

IZRAEL: OK.

VILA: ...to see what they made of the term and it would be - the response was overwhelmingly against the use of the word illegal immigrant. I mean, I don't think any - I think one person said it was OK. And we got over 300 responses. I think it's important to note - I mean, Justice Anthony Kennedy, in the ruling - the Supreme Court ruling of the SB1070 law in Arizona said that it's not a crime to be a removable alien in this country.

Being an undocumented immigrant is not a criminal offense in this country, so to call someone illegal, to sort of define their entire identity as illegal for a noncriminal offense is strange and dehumanizing and it's just inaccurate and imprecise and I think it's about time every news organization dropped it, including NPR, New York Times, Associated Press. Everyone should drop it. I mean, ABC and Univision has dropped it. Miami Herald has dropped it. The Huffington Post, the San Antonio Express News.

It's just one of those things. It's not only wrong and imprecise. It's incredibly dehumanizing.

IZRAEL: NPR gets called on the carpet.

VILA: Yeah.

IZRAEL: Dr. Neil, where do you stand on this?

MINKOFF: I'm pretty neutral. I mean, I don't think that the thing that matters in this debate is whether or not we call people illegal aliens or undocumented immigrants or whatever the term is or whatever euphemism we choose. I mean, the fact is that we have this gigantic population in our country that we need to figure out what the policy ramifications are and I'm pretty agnostic about how we choose - if undocumented immigrants is the proper term, I'm fine with that.

VILA: Well, the thing - the thing is that word sort of frames the debate. Right? You know, illegal implies bad. It implies they're bad people or that they're doing something incredibly, you know, morally heinous or that they shouldn't be here. I mean, 70 percent of the agricultural workers in this country are undocumented. I mean, we rely on these people every single day for food, for - you know, a whole host of services, often in the shadows that we don't see in our day-to-day lives.

And, sort of - I agree that we have to figure out the policy and that's the most important thing, but the words used to describe these people frame the policy in a fundamental way.

HEADLEE: But, Arsalan, let me just ask you really quickly. The drive to use the word illegal comes often from people who feel that we should call people on the carpet, as Jimi likes to use. I'm not putting you in this framework.

IZRAEL: Hey.

HEADLEE: But call people on the carpet for being undocumented, for not following the law of immigration.

IFTIKHAR: Right. And, you know, as the resident lawyer here in the Barbershop, you know, I'm going to have to cosign my man Fernando on this one because, you know, the violation of immigration laws, for the most part, in this country are civil infractions. They are not criminal. And so, when you label something as illegal, you are playing into the narrative of it being some sort of criminal enterprise.

And so, you know, that's why, you know, I fully support, you know, the use of undocumented immigrant and, you know, a lot of newspapers, depending on, you know, their political leanings, would even, you know, go so far as to say illegal aliens. Now, aliens in itself also has another negative connotation. So do catch phrases like amnesty, so you know, we have to talk about the meta-narrative that our entire American sociopolitical zeitgeist is dealing with comprehensive immigration reform.

It's not just the legislation that's passed on the Hill. It's not just Supreme Court decisions, but it's also narratives and phrases that we use in order to shape this meta-narrative.

HEADLEE: I think it's great, though, to start it as a conversation, which will continue. We need to move on to our very last topic, though, and it is Samuel L. Jackson. He has a new video out and this is a very good time to warn you that, before you click on the link and watch the video, it may not be suitable for young ears. The video was funded by the Jewish Council on Education and Research. In it, Samuel L. Jackson helps a little girl motivate her family to support President Obama. It's kind of a parody of a viral bedtime story. Take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAMPAIGN AD)

SAMUEL L. JACKSON: Sorry, my friend, but there's no time to snore and out of touch millionaires just declared war on schools, the environment, unions, fair pay. We're all on our own if Romney has his way. And he's against safety nets. If you fall, tough luck. So I strongly suggest that you wake the (beep) up.

HEADLEE: So we're going to talk about this without swearing ourselves, but Jimi, are these things effective? Do these actually work?

IZRAEL: No, no. I mean, I think any time...

HEADLEE: OK.

IZRAEL: I think any time actors, rappers, you know, hot dog vendors get into the political debate with their opinion, you know, they only cause harm. You know, I mean, and I said a couple of weeks ago that - didn't I just say a couple of weeks ago that, you know - that Obama wouldn't have Sam Jackson introduce him. You know, the next MF'ing president.

IFTIKHAR: Right.

IZRAEL: And, a few weeks later, it's as if - it's as if Sam Jackson works for me. I mean...

IFTIKHAR: Your crystal ball, Jimi.

IZRAEL: You know, but at any rate - no. This was a problem and I think it's a wash. I think it's entertaining, but I think it's a viral video, well produced.

HEADLEE: Yeah.

IZRAEL: Well scripted.

HEADLEE: All right. Well, let's get a quick response from all of you. Neil, what do you think?

MINKOFF: You know, I watched the video. I laughed a lot. It's become the Sam Jackson thing to do to insert that word in a phrase and make it go viral.

HEADLEE: Yeah.

MINKOFF: But, you know, when I watched it, what I - the message I got was, wow. Somebody's really worried about the enthusiasm gap and because nobody on my side of the aisle is saying, hey, guys, wake up. Pay attention.

IZRAEL: Clint Eastwood.

IFTIKHAR: Yeah.

IZRAEL: Excuse me. I'm sorry. Go ahead.

MINKOFF: No one's saying pay attention. I think people, you know, on one side of the aisle can't wait to go out and vote.

HEADLEE: Arsalan?

IFTIKHAR: Well, first of all, let me clean these snakes off my microphone. It's - you know, when it comes to, you know, Hollywood celebrities weighing in on political elections, recently, here in Washington, D.C., Madonna, during a concert of hers at the Verizon Center told people to go vote for a, quote, "black Muslim in the White House." And, you know, that caused a great deal of confusion whether she was being ironic or not, so you know, Sam Jackson, Madonna, Rihanna, Lady Gaga.

HEADLEE: No one paying attention. Fernando.

IZRAEL: Yeah. But Madonna - she knows how to make black snakes moan, man.

HEADLEE: Well, Fernando, let's get your response before we go.

VILA: Oh, man. Jimi, you could read that so many ways. No one says the...

IZRAEL: It's a movie. Sam Jackson. Go ahead, man.

HEADLEE: But we're not going to.

VILA: No, we're not. No one says the F word like Sam Jackson.

HEADLEE: It's true. America loves to hear Samuel Jackson, for some reason...

IZRAEL: And my dad.

HEADLEE: ...swear. Yeah.

VILA: He's bringing it - he's bringing it into polite discourse and I think that's a good thing.

HEADLEE: All right.

IZRAEL: Oy, vey. Really?

HEADLEE: Let's wrap up the Barbershop here. Jimi Izrael is a writer and culture critic, also adjunct professor of film and social media at Cuyahoga Community College. Neil Minkoff, former doctor turned health care consultant, a contributor to the National Review. He joined us from Boston. Fernando Vila is managing editor of Univision News in English. He joined us from our bureau in New York. And Arsalan Iftikhar is civil rights attorney and founder of TheMuslimGuy.com. Arsalan and Jimi are in our Washington, D.C. studio.

Thanks to all of you.

IZRAEL: Peace.

VILA: Thank you.

HEADLEE: Next week, a surprise. Barbershop buzz on the radio. Look for the new Barbershop podcast on the iTunes Store at NPR.org. That's Friday, October 5th. That's our program for today. I'm Celeste Headlee. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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