Speaking the Language of Immigration Debate Michele Norris talks with Frank Luntz, communications advisor to congressional Republicans. He has a book coming out at the end of the year, Words that Work. Luntz talks about the use of language in the ongoing immigration debate.
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Speaking the Language of Immigration Debate

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Speaking the Language of Immigration Debate

Speaking the Language of Immigration Debate

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Immigration is one of those hot button issues that arouses strong emotions and stokes sharp-edged debate. And so the language used to discuss, describe, defend or dispute immigration is very important. As we've heard, one idea can be called many different things.

Ms. LISA NAVARETTE (Vice president, National Council of La Raza): My name is Lisa Navarette. I am vice president with the National Council of La Raza. We're the largest Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization in the U.S. Earned legalization. It's more accurate and it's more reflective of what we're trying to do, which is people have to earn their way to permanent legal status in this country.

Ms. SUSAN WYSOCKI(ph) (Member, Federation for American Immigration Reform): My name is Susan Wysocki. I work for FAIR, which is the Federation for American Immigration Reform. Earned citizenship or a pathway to citizenship, all of those things basically amount to amnesty.

NORRIS: Frank Luntz is a pollster and communications advisor to Republicans.

Mr. FRANK LUNTZ (Pollster, Communications Advisor to Republicans): Well let's be blunt, the words that you use to describe illegal immigration are the words that determine whether people support or oppose a whole variety of different issues.

NORRIS: Luntz's goal is to arm his clients with language that gives him the upper hand in key debates. One of the biggest questions lately is exactly what to call the estimated 11 million immigrants who live in the U.S. and don't have papers. Illegal immigrants, migrants, undocumented workers, illegal aliens, economic refugees?

Mr. LUNTZ: If you call them illegal aliens, that's the most strong, it's the most direct term, and it frightens Hispanics in this community, Latinos who live here already. If you call them undocumented workers or unaccounted for aliens, that's the most gentle terminology. It sounds like they just lost their papers, and if you give their papers back, everything's fine. What I tend to recommend is illegal immigrants because it defines what they are. They are immigrants and they are here illegally. But let's face it, what you call them determines how people react to the whole issue.

NORRIS: And I think reaction, the reaction is based on that first word, illegal. So you're saying call it what it is, but some would say well, you know, you're framing in the debate from the start in a negative way.

Mr. LUNTZ: Yeah, but the fact is if they're illegal, they're illegal. And to call them anything but what they are, in my mind, is not framing the debate properly.

NORRIS: Recently we saw the injection of the word criminal into this debate with the House bill that would make it a felony to be in the U.S. illegally and would penalize employers for hiring illegal aliens. The introduction of that word criminal, fid that have an effect on this debate in the way that people respond and actually heard this discussion?

Mr. LUNTZ: I believe it does have an effect because when you criminalize something that basically raises the stakes. It makes things more intense. It makes people stand up and pay attention.

NORRIS: Let me ask you about another word that seems to carry a lot of weight. The Senate has been considering a guest worker program, but in this discussion the A word came up, this word being amnesty. When lawmakers and activists use this word, are they using it as a weapon or a cudgel?

Mr. LUNTZ: Oh, good question, it' a double-edge sword. No one would ever actually articulate that they support amnesty. However, if you get labeled as being a supporter of amnesty, that's it, muerte, you know, it's Spanish for death. Because the public does not want to give amnesty, they do not want to basically say that even though you broke the law, we're going to look the other way. It's not part of the American culture. We are actually a very compassionate people, and those who want stricter laws in immigration have missed that point, because they come across as being angry. But those who want more lenient rules have missed the point that the American people do believe in the rule of law, and they expect laws to be obeyed and laws to be followed. So in essence, on both sides of the debate they're missing some of the language and some of the emotion that the American people would express if they could.

NORRIS: Now this debate has moved over the course of the day, if you look at the compromise that was hammered out in the Senate today. Give us a quick score card of that language that was hammered out.

Mr. LUNTZ: It's unclear. It's easier for me to compare the House language and the Senate language. The House language will sound much more punitive, will sound much tougher. And the Senate language is much more focused on acceptance and basically dealing with the situation as it is.

NORRIS: Frank Luntz thanks for talking to us.

Mr. LUNTZ: My pleasure.

NORRIS: Frank Luntz is the president of Luntz Maslansky Strategic Research. It's a prominent polling and political communications firm. He's also the author of the upcoming book, Words that Work.

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