By
The Cycle
updated 4/8/2013 4:49:36 PM ET 2013-04-08T20:49:36

Why words matter: they don't just reflect our attitudes but shape them. The debate about terminology for undocumented worker.

The phrase illegal American is absurd. We don’t define people as illegal and we don’t classify people’s entire being based on one action–unless they come to America or stay in America in violation of our immigration codes. The phrase is linguistically illogical: it defines people as illegal rather than their actions.

Last week the influential Associated Press style book announced it was banning the phrase that promotes stigmatization and dehumanization in a nation where hate crime violence is up sharply in response to the rise of Hispanic Americans. Given that,  you can see why it’s crucial to be vigilant against defining certain bodies as criminal. Language matters. Language shapes thought. Words carry baggage and house narratives.

Illegal immigrant is like a Trojan horse filled with thugs. A person who has cancer deserves sympathy. A cancerous person deserves quarantine. An illegal immigrant sounds like a criminal who’s here to steal jobs and resources. An undocumented worker is a dutiful, aspiring American. Frank Luntz knows the difference. In a once-secret, 2005 memo he counseled GOP politicians to use “illegal immigrant” because labels “determine the attitudes people have.” But many of us refuse to let Frank Luntz frame the conversation.

Before the AP’s shift, other groups dropped the I-word including ABC News, HuffPo, the Miami Herald, and Fox News Latino. Now The New York Times is considering a shift in policy. NBC News’s preferred term is undocumented rather than illegal because it’s more neutral. Media speech must be held to higher scrutiny.

If someone is found standing over a dead body, holding a bloody knife, media will refer to them as an alleged murderer until conviction. So why would we use illegal immigrant, a phrase that contradicts the presumption of innocence, a phrase that convicts in a situation where no criminal code has been broken. Migrant workers violate civil codes, not criminal ones.

In the Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling on Arizona’s SB 1070, Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, said,  “It is not a crime for a removable alien to remain present in the U.S..” He also wrote that it’s not a crime to seek or engage in unauthorized employment. So the phrase is inaccurate, leading, and loaded, purposely planting visions of unwanted people flouting laws and being a plague upon this country, instead of unlucky people who’ve come looking for work, willing to do jobs most Americans are uninterested in doing.

Of these undocumented workers, 75%  pay payroll taxes and many pay income, sales and property taxes–contributing to a system they are unable to benefit from because of their status. They are makers and not takers.

The language we use to define people shapes how they are seen and how they see themselves. Going from negro or colored to African-American linked us to a place and a history. Adding the option of Ms. tried to liberate women from being defined by marital status. Shifting from homosexual to gay and lesbian made them sound less scientific other. Wrapped up in “illegal immigrant” is a fear of the inevitable browning of America.

Undocumented works toward a reasonable, productive discussion about that future.

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