Why Language Matters When Discussing Immigration

Both our immigration process and how we discuss immigrants have room for improvement

*Note: some of the content in this article contains offensive language

Using certain language to categorize or degrade people is hardly a new tactic. Certain descriptors can have a dramatic effect on public opinion, impacting national debates and halting positive policy changes.

The United States is known to be a country of immigrants, something that once stirred up a sense of pride in the majority of people, recognizing that much of what makes the United States great is the diversity within its borders. But now there is a war on immigration, stemming from an issue that should certainly be addressed but has been thrown out of proportion: illegal immigration.

Trump’s obsession with the southern border has created a domino effect and has drawn a sharp line between two categories: pro-immigration and anti-immigration. The very idea of the United States becoming an anti-immigration nation seems paradoxical considering the country was founded by a group of immigrants… but the rhetoric used in the conversation surrounding immigration, illegal immigrants, the southern border and “the wall” has caused people to begin choosing sides, something that is disrupting effective policy change.

Photo by Martino Pietropoli on Unsplash

The current linguistic struggle within the immigration debate is what to call people entering the country illegally, some seeking asylum, others seeking better opportunities and a chance at the American Dream. One of the choice words that has been used since the 1700s by multiple countries is the term “aliens.” While most hear the descriptor and think UFOs and Area 51, when used in reference to immigration, the word does its job in portraying a person that is not meant to be here, dehumanizing them in the process.

The History of Derogatory Descriptors

Alien (n)
“a foreigner, especially one who is not a naturalized citizen of the country where they are living.”

The term “alien” derives from the Latin word alienus, meaning stranger or foreign. The term is not restricted to the United States, other nations using it throughout history as well. The first usage of the word “alien” within the United States was in 1798 in the Alien and Sedition Acts. The Acts consisted of four laws passed by Congress in preparation for America’s war with France. The acts increased the requirements of residency in order to obtain American citizenship from five to fourteen years. The acts also authorized the president to imprison or deport aliens who they considered a danger to the United States’ peace and safety and restricted speech that criticized the government. Congress repealed the Naturalization Act in 1802, allowing the three other acts to expire.

“Alien” is not the only derogatory descriptor used throughout history in efforts to show a certain group of people in a negative light. The word “nigger” was firmly established as a derogatory name towards African Americans by the early 1800s. While public opinion has shifted, the word now deemed inappropriate and racist, that was not always the case.

Derogatory names are commonly assigned when someone wishes to degrade or devalue a person or idea. The same inappropriate rhetoric used towards African American slaves in the United States during the 19th century was also used to degrade Jews during World War II. The Nazis used names like “Kike” and “parasites” to describe the Jewish people in their efforts to systematically exterminate them. The Nazis’ rhetoric is a prime example of dehumanizing language, a historic warning of what can happen when it’s used and how far it can go in justifying even the most horrific acts.

The Consequence of Words

Language has often been crafted to further one’s argument, regardless of profession. Politicians and lobbyists are masters of using specific language to further their agendas, which in turn, impacts constituents and citizens when national debates arise.

Dr. Steve Utych, Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Boise State University, has focused his research to examine how the language used to discuss politics can influence political attitudes. Utych said the term “alien” is definitely dehumanizing and can cause negative reactions toward immigrants.

“Even though the term itself means foreign, obviously, a lot of people tend to think of something extra-terrestrial, or by definition non-human, when they hear the word alien. This logic gets to the heart of debates about calling these individuals “undocumented immigrants” vs. “illegal immigrants,” which is often just shortened to “illegals” by opponents, which itself is another problematically dehumanizing term… We’re seeing a rise in the term “alien” used to describe immigrants these days, and I think that’s because politicians opposed to immigration and in favor of a border wall have a sense that it works.”

Immigration has been a focal point of Trump’s administration, beginning to call for the building of a wall during his presidential campaign and is now the main motivator behind the government shutdown. The negative rhetoric that has been used by the administration has only prompted its general use even more, after all, if its good enough for the President why wouldn’t it be good enough for everyone else? The increased use of the term “alien” and other negative language has increased anti-immigration support, enforcing a sense of urgency to protect the United States from hyped-up terror threats and false crises.

Rising violence in Venezuela has caused Latin America’s largest exodus, millions fleeing the collapsing nation since 2015. Photo by Randy Colas on Unsplash

Immigrants from South America make up a small portion of the U.S. foreign-born population — less than 10 percent — the numbers increasing over the last few years partially due to the growing violence in Venezuela and other surrounding countries. The Migration Policy Institute released a report though, noting that the United States is “not the primary destination for Venezuelans leaving an increasingly failing state, with most of the members of Latin America’s largest exodus (at least 2 million people since 2015) fleeing to locations elsewhere in the region, in particular, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Chile and Argentina.” The violence millions are fleeing would often be enough to elicit an emotional, empathetic response but the negative rhetoric continues to cancel it out, fear trumping compassion. Even asylum-seekers are facing steeper challenges as the public’s skepticism and mistrust towards immigrants continue to rise.

“This type of dehumanizing rhetoric operates through emotional responses — when people are exposed to dehumanizing language about immigrants, they feel more anger and disgust toward them, compared to when they just see negative language that is not dehumanizing.” — Dr. Utych

Politics Over People

It’s been said that “the first casualty of war is the truth” and that could not ring truer in 2019 amidst a political war over the partial government shutdown. As public distrust in immigration continues to rise, the media has struggled to try to wade through the misinformation that the Trump administration continues to spread, along with their harsh anti-immigration messages. The President is not alone in spreading “fake news” but he has certainly spoken (or tweeted) the loudest.

Fact-checking the President has become a full-time job. The Washington Post reported that, “In the first eight months of his presidency, President Trump made 1,137 false or misleading claims, an average of five a day… Combined with the rest of his presidency, that adds up to a total of 7,645 claims through Dec. 30, the 710th day of his term in office according to The Fact Checker’s database that analyzes, categorizes and tracks every suspect statement uttered by the president.”

One of the lies spread in attempts to garner support for the wall is that illegal immigrants pose a grave threat to public safety, causing panic in states along the southern border. The “emergency” at the border has grown out of proportion, the President threatening to declare a state of emergency to bypass the shutdown and Congress to approve the continued building of the wall.

But is the southern border under attack? The short answer is no. In fact, the Customs and Border Protection agency released data showing that arrests for illegal border crossings have been gradually decreasing for years, 2017 hitting a 40-year low.

So why is the President threatened by illegal immigrants, specifically those coming from South America? What is the root of this severe distrust and racist attitude towards those people? That may never fully be known, but it is obvious the President feels the need to lie to the American people in order to further his agenda. One of his tactics: derogatory, dehumanizing words.

“This is a type of strategy I’ve noticed Donald Trump using a lot, especially when he talks about immigration and the southern border (though, he also calls his political opponents “dogs” rather frequently),” Utych said. “A few months back he called the MS-13 gang members “animals,” which got a lot of attention as dehumanizing. Just about a week and a half ago, he tweeted that the southern border was an “open wound,” which is certainly more subtle but something that implies that immigrants are entering this wound, potentially causing an infection — this type of dehumanization, as vermin or disease, has traditionally been very commonly used when referring to immigrants”

Trump has not announced yet if he will call a national emergency, causing many to panic over whether or not it would create a constitutional crisis. But the President is running out of options as the Democrats stand firm in their assurance that the wall is not going to happen. There’s really no way of knowing how exactly the President will act… He’s not exactly known for being diplomatic or subtle.

Dr. Utych said even the language Trump is using to continue the “growing crisis” has dehumanizing consequences that we’re continuing to see as he grows more and more desperate.

“The language about declaring a national emergency over immigration reads kind of like diagnosing a disease, saying emergency can be declared when an “influx of aliens which either is of such magnitude or exhibits such other characteristics that effective administration of the immigration laws of the United States is beyond the existing capabilities” of immigration authorities “in the affected area or areas.” Taking an unprecedented approach like that, or just convincing Democrats to bend on the border wall funding, probably takes having public opinion on his side on this issue.”

In his effort to “make America great again,” the President has lowered the nation’s ideals, causing many to wonder how things have gotten this bad. Anger erupted over family separations at the border last year — an actual crisis of our own making — when images of children sitting inside cages were leaked. Trump’s haunting words, calling MS-13 gang members “animals” suddenly became real, except the ones in cages weren’t violent criminals but rather helpless children. It suddenly seemed that the United States of America had reached it’s lowest point, recovery nowhere in sight.

Distracting from Real Reform

None of Trump’s rhetoric changes the fact that the United States is in desperate need of immigration reform. There have been several attempts to put a dent in immigration reform in recent decades like Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) which defers deportation proceedings for two years for qualified individuals who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children. But then Trump announced a “wind-down” of the program in 2017.

Congress has yet to pass effective measures to reform U.S. immigration regulations. The American immigration system has always been very family focused, family ties accounting for two-thirds of all residency visas. This is more than any other country. What Trump and other Republicans in Congress have called for is visa distribution based more on employability. This is more typical in other nations, seeking skilled workers or those who work in specific career fields like technology or medicine.

Top 5 Countries for Immigration:
1. The United States (46.6 million immigrants)
2. Germany (12.0 million immigrants)
3. Russia (11.6 million immigrants)
4. Saudi Arabia (10.2 million immigrants)
5. United Kingdom (8.5 million immigrants)

One complaint that has been growing over the years is how long people have to wait to immigrate to the country. Application wait time has grown longer and more expensive under the Obama and Trump administrations. President Obama instructed USCIS in 2014 to change the application process, the form going from 10 pages to 21 pages. More questions were added to ensure applicants have no ties to terrorist groups and to inquire about previous military training. Under President Trump, the U.S. citizenship application process has stretched from approximately six months to over two years in certain states, with over 700,000 immigrants waiting for their application verdict.

Our economy has created hundreds of thousands of jobs for low-skilled workers in fields like retail, hospitality, cleaning, food, agriculture and more. With more jobs being added though, the number of Americans who have traditionally filled those jobs continues to decline, and our immigration system still offers no legal channel for immigrants to enter the United States legally to fill those jobs.

Photo by Josh Johnson on Unsplash

The amount the U.S. has spent on border enforcement has risen over the last few years, but despite the increase in enforcement from agencies like ICE, the number of illegal immigrants living in the country has grown. So rather than spending more and more tax dollars on enforcement, the funds could go toward providing more efficient legal aid to speed up the application process.

No immigration bill put before Congress will be considered perfect and there’s no pleasing everyone, but there is room for improvement both in the process and how we discuss immigration.