“Anchor baby,” “alien,” “illegal,” “undocumented,” “amnesty,” “path to citizenship” – The language of immigration reform is striking in its power to frame the debate over how immigrants who are in the U.S. without the proper documentation, become fully integrated into the nation. The evolution of that language has been rapid and those who have not kept up with the changes have suffered the consequences. The prime example is Mitt Romney whose reliance on “self-deportation” was deemed a major factor in his failed presidential campaign. More recently, several leading news organizations, including the Associated Press and USA Today have eliminated the phrase “illegal immigrants” from their style books. At the same time, Karthick Ramakrishnan and Jennifer Merolla assert that the term “illegal immigrants” has no measurable negative effect on the perceptions of U.S. citizens with regard to the immigration debate. Clearly, the public debate over the term has led news organizations to perceive it as offensive even as public opinion is evolving.

Ramakrishan and Merolla argue that a more pressing issue is the way the policy debate is framed. Their study showed that voters neutral on immigration legalization, tended to view the issue in a more negative light when the word “amnesty” was used.  “Amnesty,” often associated with giving undocumented immigrants a “free pass,” has lead those in the midst of the debate to search for a more felicitous term such as “pathway to citizenship.” Amongst conservatives looking to embrace Latino voters without alienating a traditional constituency that rejects citizenship for undocumented immigrants, the focus is on border security and other enforcement measures.

What are your thoughts?

Have news organizations eliminated the use of “illegal immigrant” at a time when it no longer carries a negative connotation for most U.S. voters?

If the notion of amnesty for undocumented immigrants is unpalatable to U.S. voters, what terms might be more appropriate?

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  • Rachael D. Goodman

    I’m glad that the point about language has been raised. As a professor and a mental health counselor, some of my work as focused on the impact of discrimination, including how racism and discrimination can cause stress and even traumatic stress. I have been concerned about how the public discourse and pejorative language is impacting immigrant communities, as well as Latino communities or other communities of color. I also think this rhetoric serves to exacerbate negative and stereotypical images of immigrant communities. This can create significant barriers to wellbeing and success: informal barriers, such as an employer not hiring an immigrant because of a negative assumption, as well as formal barriers, such as public policies that limit public benefits to immigrants who are seen as “taking advantage” of the US government. These, of course, are not new ideas — racism and discrimination has long had these types of impacts. But I do think that we need to raise our voices to object to harmful public discourse — and we have research now to support these ideas.

    • Kris Vonnegut

      Rachael, Excellent point – and illustrated again in the discussion of a “link” between the bombs in Boston and the suggestion of some to suspend the immigration bill. The assumption that the attacker was a “foreign national” as Representative Steve King and ALIPAC asserted on Tuesday is a further demonstration of that discrimination. The vast majority of immigrants to the US are law-abiding. Just as the vast majority of US citizens are law abiding.

  • JOHN_C_C

    One complaint often raised by those against amnesty is that is unfair to those who gained legal status by the preferred method. They have a point. We would please both the anti-amnesty folks and the lined-up applicants by streamlining and expanding our visa process.

  • Terry Hunt

    WIth all due respect to those who are concerned about the self image of “aspiring citizens,” these hard working people don’t need to be pandered to. They need this proposed legislation passed.

    The problem is: these folks really are “illegal aliens.” To call them anything else is to try to sugar coat their reality and avoid public responsibility for what our laws, our greed and the national economic policies of the US and Mexico have done to them. We have made them economic refugees.

    But, we need these refugees – if we are to put enough young blood and energy into our country’s economy and military to pay for our old age benefits and salve our progressive consciences by sending “peace keeping” soldiers to save the less fortunate of the world from the mayhem rape and murder perpetrated on them by their neighbors.

    These simple and brutal truths are not being explained to our citizens. A substantial percentage of voters still oppose what they see as “amnesty.” (In a poll I saw in the last 60 days it included nearly 73% Republicans and over one third of Democrats. In a recent story and interview on NPR, a young residential building contractor explained that residential construction in Texas is done by around 400,000 unlawful workers who are used as “independent contractors” on a piece work pay basis by layers of sub and sub-sub contractors to build houses in that state – no insurance, no worker’s comp, no taxes, no anything, but bargain priced, good houses. That is a good example of how millions of illegal immigrants are providing cheap labor to subsidize low prices for certain consumer commodities for the rest of us. The problem is that the economic cost .of this cheap labor is concentrated in relatively few portions of the country, while the large benefits tend to be spread around for most of us to enjoy – check your cheap food bill at the super market and compare it to what you would have paid in any other industrialized country.

    The largest hurdle for getting some semblance of this bill through the House is this: . Come debate and vote time, most Republicans,, and more Democrats that we would like to think, are going to be hearing from “home”, and constituents screaming about excusing law breakers and taking jobs from Americans. Unless we can combat that, a fatal number of Representatives are going to look at their “hole cards” and conclude:

    “I don’t care if my party wins the White House in 2016, if I don’t get re-elected in 2014 ”

    If we want CIR we’ve got to deal with the reality of the situation and be able to simply, honestly and effectively explain to people in small town America why our country – their country – needs this bill and why it won’t hurt them.

    If you think using a campaign of warm and fuzzy progressive rhetoric will get us there, ponder the fate of the proposed expanded gun registration bill in the Senate. We have a significant national problem with unregistered person to person handgun sales via the internet. Its a very real way that guns get into the hands of criminals. Was the administration able to focus on that and succeed in getting workable legislation past the Senate? All the tears and all the gallery appearances by heartbroken parents were not sufficient. A much better, focused and fact based job of persuasion will have to be done if the CIR bill is to make it through Congress and in to a much needed law.

    • WendyFeliz

      I don’t think it’s an issue of using “warm fuzzy rhetoric” but again being precise. Not everyone came here the same way and while some folks might be “illegal” as you put it, some are in a “liminal” status, for example when they are awaiting the renewal of some visa status. It’s too blunt and oversimplified to call everyone “illegal” and gets us exactly where we don’t want to be which is in a situation where we are trying to find a one size fits all approach. Immigration law is very complex and fixing it requires a nuanced understanding of how and why folks got here and what remedies are necessary to bring an end to people being here without the proper papers and approvals.

  • WendyFeliz

    I just read the LA Times is also moving away from using the word “illegal immigrant” and is requiring reporters to use more precision in their reporting. Essentially explaining how the person ended up in the U.S. and under what circumstances they reside. This follows the AP. http://www.latimes.com/news/local/readers-rep/la-me-rr-la-times-guidelines-immigration-20130501,0,5876110.story

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=624341404 John Lamb

    Lots to say on this. Starting with this:

    Frame the issue as, who are *we*.

    Are we grateful, being thoughtful about whether we are ethically free to treat those whose work we enjoy in whatever way we please? Do we truly find taxation without representation disgusting? Are we fighters for justice, for enfranchisement? Do we embrace the role of the host as equally important as the role of the newcomer? Is our American identity bigger than who appears on a government list, perhaps because “American” a term that the government might be slower to fully understand than the rest of us? Do we believe in our hearts Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision in Birmingham Jail that “anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds”? Are we indivisible?

    Who are we? That’s the starting frame.

  • D Tuomi

    Lift the Bars/Bans and let our spouses come back to their families…