Up   |  October 07, 2012

The consequences of using the term ‘illegal immigrant’

The Up w/ Chris Hayes panelists talk about the damage and discrimination in referring to people as “illegal” in the context of their immigration status.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> we're talking about the term illegal immigrant and what kind of work it's doing in our politics and whether it's work working against us and whether it's working against the interest of justice and equality. maria, you made a compelling case. john, you seem skeptical a little bit. you are a linguist so --

>> i feel, i don't know how much it creates what i'm feeling. i hate to disagree with any of you, but in the case of these terms, it seems what usually happens is it's like flies have settled on you and the flies come back. so, for example, the term that we now revile retarded, nobody would want to use that term. if you think about it and wrap your head around it, it was a euphemism. the idea was to say somebody is slowed a little bit. then the unpleasant associations settled down. for example, think about special needs and what that meant when that term was composed. it was elegant, it was beautiful and respectful. face it, the same associations have settled down. i worry, if we create a new way of referring to it, the problems are going to settle down. african-american 20 years ago, the idea was to use that term instead of black. look how that's gone. if anything it looks dainty, something somebody came up with for certain reasons. it hasn't had the effect it was supposed to. i worry changing the term is less important than trying to change the policy.

>> we are in profound ground. the question is, is it the word that's doing the work or, you know, is it the politics and that that the word comes out of and the point that you say what determines the meaning of things. you can come up with a term that doesn't pack the same punch we think illegal has. but that can accrue negative means.

>> the feelings are still in the air, then the term changes meaning like the old one did.

>> brook, what is your feeling about that? more broadly, about these kinds of efforts to changeling wisic usage in the new york times.

>> you never know what comes first. it is the culture changing or the media that's driving things or a particular group that's making something happen? are they working in tandem going back and forth? you have phrases that have been successful through time but they keep getting relitigated. affirmative action versus quotas. pro-life versus proabortion and anti-abortion. you have the ones that identify groups. you have, you know, queer was once a bad word . then you went to homo sexual that was medicalized then gay but you don't call lesbians gay. there are things happening within the groups that you say well, people have a right to self-identify. when you are talking about a political or a legal issue or an issue that is or a word that is defined by a particular context, as in this case, it's way more complicated.

>> to push back on that, i think ho moe sexual and gay is a good analogy here. let me read "the new york times" style guide on gay. gay adjective. preferred to homosexual and political issues. use it in reference to sexual activity and psychological. do not use gay as a plural noun. gay is used as a last resort ordinarily in a hard to fit headline. we grant groups the ability to self-identify. that's why i use the term pro-life. people get mad at me for that. those who advocate for it say they are pro-life. i am not going to call them something other than they call themselves.

>> i would 1,000% disagree with you here. self-identifying who you are is one thing. within the black/african-american community, there are different views of what one seems like. you are walking around the issue. the other says black. black is black. say it. when you are talking about a political issue and if somebody says i want to define myself as pro-life, therefore my opponents are anti-life, you have allowed them to make the -- to win the argument before the argument takes place. i think issues are different.

>> somebody who is gay and undocumented, i want to jump in this conversation. to me, the biggest --

>> i think of you as an illegal homosexual.

>> what has changed, you know, it's interesting. we have this really evolving and growing immigrant rights movement, right? in the past three years or so, more and more people like me are coming out as undocumented, right? it's an interesting phrase. i have come out twice in my life. i'm totally done. i'm not coming out about anything more. have you seen an undocumented person that has a poster saying i'm illegal? no. the memo that frank watts wrote in 2005 saying you should refer to people as illegal immigrants to criminalize them. if journalists argue this, argue using the word illegal as a neutral stance, are we done listening to frank?

>> there is no neutrality.

>> i am not talking a reference to people. i'm talking about defining an issue.

>> i'm talking about real lives. let me talk about real lives. one second.

>> okay.

>> i believe, frankly, that if the american people understood profoundly like talking to their neighbors, talking to the guy who delivers their pizza, talking to the person, the custodian at their kids school, if they actually spoke with them about the issue, i want to hear. then you would begin to hear stories that i saw, as you know, in a front line documentary that aired a year ago this month that uncovered because we went in with cameras, the truth about what happens, the real consequences when you label a people illegal. we have privately run detention centers with no legally binding standards and you have people that are illegal and being treated by guards as such being paid minimum wage. what happens is that all of the guards talk to the detained people, by the way, many of them with green cards in the country legally.

>> right.

>> okay? they say to them, what do you mean you want food. you are here illegally. what do you mean you were raped, shut up, you are illegal. you have no rights. no. the consequences of what happened to our society. i care about this, chris, let me finish. i care about this because i chose to become an american. i made a decision to become an american citizen and gave up my mexican citizenship. these basic constitutional human rights issues about what defines us as a country benefit. this is for american.

>> the question is the cause. are the guards, if the word is -- i mean the argument you are making is about the work, the psychological work that term is doing in making it okay for those guards to act that way which, i agree with you, i think that's a harder case to make. i'm not defending the detention center . why does romney use illegal citizen over and over .

>> you can stage with with