How Words Shape the Immigration Debate

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As Americans debate proposed changes to the nation's immigration policies, the language we use can be as charged as the issue itself. Is it Illegal or undocumented? Alien or guest worker? Rob Schmitz looks at how words help shape the current immigration debate.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand. In the national debate about immigration, every word is politically charged. Do you say illegal aliens or undocumented workers? Illegal immigrants or economic refugees?

From member station, KQED, Rob Schmitz examines the choices media, politicians, and analysts make when discussing this volatile issue.

ROB SCHMITZ, reporting:

The cover of the April 10 edition of Newsweek carried a picture of a highway sign commonly seen near the border with Mexico. It depicts a mother, father, and child running for safety. The cover, with it's headline, caught Rafael Olmeda's eye.

Mr. RAFAEL OLMEDA (Vice President, The National Association of Hispanic Journalists): It's glowing black and white with the words--Illegals Under Fire. I thought that this was like some kind of booth at the county fair where, you know, the more you shoot down, the more points you get and you get to take home a big stuffed teddy bear. I looked at it and I cringed.

SCHMITZ: Olmeda's organization, The National Association of Hispanic Journalists, had just sent a memo to major news organizations asking them to stop using the term illegals. Instead, it recommended undocumented immigrants and undocumented workers.

Olmeda, who is also assistant city editor of the South Florida Sun Sentinel, says the memo stirred up debates in newsrooms across the country on the often overlooked but perhaps most important aspect of the immigration: semantics.

Mr. OLMEDA: Nobody wants to say undocumented migrant workers, because undocumented migrant workers does not scare the American people into thinking, we need to secure our borders.

Mr. IRA MELMAN (Spokesman, Federation For American Immigration Reform): We should not start playing games and, you know, going through all sorts of semantic contortions to be politically correct.

SCHMITZ: Ira Melman is a spokesman for the, or FAIR. Melman says immigration advocates created the term undocumented in order to play down the fact the immigrant it refers to broke the law.

Mr. MELMAN: The people who are here without permission, who are not citizens, are illegal aliens.

SCHMITZ: This is the term the U.S. government has used for years, all the way back to the founding of this country. In today's popular culture, though, alien has taken on a new meaning as chronicled in this radio drama version of The Day The Earth Stood Still.

(Soundbite of radio program, “The Day The Earth Stood Still”)

Unidentified Announcer: Against an eerie glow of unearthly light from inside the spaceship's…

SCHMITZ: And according to Otto Santa Ana, the mainstream press is responsible for helping spread this non human image. Santa Ana is a linguist and professor at UCLA. From 1992 to '94, Santa Ana student's kept tabs on every single metaphor the Los Angeles Times used to describe immigrants. Santa Ana says his students discovered the major metaphor used for immigrants described the immigrant as an animal.

Professor OTTO SANTA ANA (Professor of Linguistics, UCLA): At times, immigrants were considered rats. A federal officials quote, "are calling for beefed up border patrols to ferret out illegal immigrants." Well, a ferret is the animal that chases down rodents.

SCHMITZ: Then, he says, the tone of the language shifted. It happened on January 7, 2004. And Santa Ana was surprised by the source.

(Soundbite of presidential speech)

President GEORGE W. BUSH: As a nation that values immigration and depends on immigration, we should have immigration laws that work and make us proud.

SCHMITZ: It was the start of President Bush's reelection campaign, the day the president introduced his guest worker proposal.

President BUSH: Many undocumented workers have walked mile after mile through the heat of the day and the cold of the night.

SCHMITZ: Otto Santa Ana heard the president's speech on his way to work.

Prof. SANTA ANA: I was so shocked I had to stop, get off the freeway, and listen to it. And to hear this as actually coming from the president, I was overwhelmed.

SCHMITZ: But the mainstream media still uses a wide assortment of terms in its immigration coverage.

(Soundbite of television program, “Lou Dobbs Tonight”)

Mr. LOU DOBBS (Anchor, CNN): Proposals for illegal alien amnesty before Congress…

SCHMITZ: CNN's Lou Dobbs consistently uses illegal alien, as does conservative talk show host, Rush Limbaugh.

A spokesman for the LA Times says the paper no longer uses the term illegal as a noun, nor the term alien. Instead, it has a policy of using the terms illegal immigrant and undocumented immigrant.

And National Public Radio? What is its policy? It has no policy, says NPR Ombudsman, Jeffrey Dvorkin.

Mr. JEFFREY DVORKIN (NPR Ombudsman): Bill Marimow, the VP of news, said that he wants to make sure that the stories should be handled, quote, "with accuracy, thoroughness, fairness, and sensitivity," and who can disagree with that?

(Soundbite of crowd chanting)

SCHMITZ: Certainly not the thousands of immigrants at a recent march in downtown Los Angeles. A very unscientific poll of marchers who came here illegally shows no consensus whatsoever.

Unidentified Woman: (Through Translator) We are undocumented. We're not illegal; that sounds bad. Foreigner sounds better.

SCHMITZ: And for Pancho Enofre(ph) who came here illegally last year, the term is simple.

Mr. PANCHO ENOFRE: (Through Translator) I am free.

SCHMITZ: And who, in this debate on immigration, can argue with that? French philosopher Michele Foucault once said that true power is the control of discourse. Maybe that's why there's such a fierce battle over the use of words.

For NPR News, I'm Rob Schmitz in Los Angeles

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