The Politics of the Media’s Migrant Lexicon

Pressland Editors
Jun 17 · 7 min read

Reducing the complexities of migration to a handful of modified nouns is a messy but sometimes necessary practice. Here’s how to think about it.

Many of the words we use to describe migrants are based on categories in the 1951 Refugee Convention—categories that are increasingly inadequate for the 21st-century.

By Madeleine Wattenbarger

When the first of the recent months’ migrant caravans began making its way up through Mexico last fall, I witnessed a debate over terminology in an online group of journalists covering the beat. Someone had referred to the several thousand Central Americans heading to the U.S. border as “refugees.” But refugee, someone else pointed out, is a legal category. While they may be seeking refuge, this person argued, until a government deems them refugees, they simply aren’t. Legally, they are migrants, a few rungs lower on the international-protection totem pole. Judges, not journalists or public opinion, decide their legal status.

The way we describe migration has always been ideologically charged. Words like “invasion,” “hordes” and “flood” have been used as dogwhistles in xenophobic crusades peddling visions of violent, uncouth and unassimilable masses descending on Ellis Island, Angel Island, and, more recently, the southern border. Every decision we make about how to describe migration is a political decision, and the language used by the media shapes the general public’s understanding the issue.

Journalistic norms around how to refer to immigrants entering the United States illegally vary across outlets. Often, how an outlet navigates the legal and political nuances of terminology corresponds with their place on the political spectrum: the National Review and Breitbart both freely deploy the term “illegal alien,” while the Wall Street Journal opts for the slightly softer wordings “illegal immigrant,” “alien” and “illegal border crosser,” occasionally using the term “undocumented immigrant.” The New York Times stylebook discourages the term “illegal immigrant,” while also cautioning against the potentially euphemistic “undocumented” and “unauthorized.” The AP Stylebook eliminated the term “illegal immigrant” in 2013, specifying instead that “illegal” should refer to an action — crossing the border illegally — instead of to individuals.

Fox News, meanwhile, doesn’t shy away from deeply charged language around migration. Its hosts have referred to migrant “invasions” and “hordes.” It tends to play fast and loose with references to Central American migration in general: in its coverage of Trump’s cutting off aid to migrant-sending countries earlier this year, a “Fox & Friends” chyron referred to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador as “three Mexican countries.”

Not an outtake from the Mike Judge film “Idiocracy”: Fox News in 2019.

Much of the immigration rhetoric on Fox and other rightwing outlets echoes the charged words of the president himself. Trump has characterized migrants moving north through Mexico, many with the plan to seek asylum in the U.S., as “illegals.” Beyond the criminalizing tint of the term “illegal,” it patently misrepresents the legal categories that describe those migrants. While some of those migrants have been undocumented in Mexico, most of them had no migration status in the U.S., legal or illegal. Once they’ve requested asylum, however, asylees do have legal status, as enshrined in the 1951 Refugee Convention.

The legal complexities behind the terms can cause confusion for the layperson unacquainted with the intricacies of asylum law. Jaya Ramji-Nogales, a professor at Temple University’s Beasley School of Law who specializes in immigration law, observes that journalists sometimes try to shoehorn migrants into categories that don’t really fit their particular situation — often because immigration law does the same thing. “Some media portrayals take the refugee definition as sacred, but it’s law, and law is constructed by human beings,” Ramji-Nogales says.

The 1951 Refugee Convention, she points out, was written to protect people fleeing Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, and the categories it sets out are increasingly inadequate to describe migration today. Many migrants today are forced to leave their homes under conditions that don’t qualify for international protection as refugees or asylees — including gang violence, domestic abuse and internal armed conflicts. The distinction between refugees and economic migrants aren’t quite as neat as they were in 1951. Ramji-Nogales gives the example of a Central American migrant who leaves home because they can’t pay the extortion fees that gangs demand of them. Are they leaving their homes for economic reasons, or because of persecution? They may or may not qualify for asylum, but their experience shows there’s a fuzzy line between migrants fleeing violence and those fleeing economic instability.

Today’s mixed migration flows make it difficult to assign clear labels. The term “climate refugee,” for example, has become more prevalent in media in the last decade and a half, but there exists no uniform international designation for people fleeing climate crises. The 1951 Refugee Convention doesn’t recognize climate crises as a factor that merits protection as a refugee, although in Latin America, climate refugees are recognized under the Cartagena Convention. In the U.S., migrants displaced for climate-related disasters are usually covered by Temporary Protection Status.

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In the face of these complexities, how do journalists condense individuals’ complex situations into a few words? Dara Lind, who covers immigration for Vox, says she chooses wherever possible to describe the details of an individual’s situation rather than characterize it with a label. “Specificity is generally the way around a lot of problems associated with terminology,” she says. “Instead of bothering to label current Guatemalan migrants ‘climate refugees,’ you can talk about the impact that the drought has had in the western highlands.” Likewise, she reserves the use of “refugee” strictly for referring to legal status. Describing individual migrants’ situations, instead of resorting to catch-all terms, also brings more depth to the reporting. “It means that you’re actually communicating more successfully to your audience because it’s not your interpretation, it’s just what’s going on.”

Emily Green, a Mexico City-based journalist who’s covered migration for Vice and Public Radio International, says she’s careful about the terms that she uses, but doesn’t shy away from using words to describe the volume of migrants currently arriving at the border. “I use ‘wave,’ or even sometimes ‘crush,’ which is maybe a slightly more loaded term,” she says. “There are a lot of people arriving every day at the border. There have to be some shorthand ways of describing that.”

Journalist Eileen Truax, who has written two books on immigration in the U.S. and is currently the content director for the International Symposium on Migration Journalism, takes particular issue with the term “migrant crisis.” The phrase first became prevalent in the media to refer to migrants arriving in Europe from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq in September 2015. Since then, the term has woven in and out of our discourse, and now most frequently refers to migration in the Americas, from the detention of children in camps and cages, to the Central American migrant caravans, to the thousands of people waiting to seek asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border. Each one of these is a crisis in a different way to different people: is the crisis white supremacy? The internationally established human right to seek asylum? Law and order? State violence? Mere bureaucratic capacity? Without the probing of these nuances, the migrants themselves become the crisis, their mere presence cause for panic.

A crisis is, by definition, the worsening of a problem. But migration itself is not a problem: it’s a human right and a natural phenomenon — “an episode, a moment, a situation,” says Truax. “Migration is a result of a problem. The problem is the [gang violence], the problem is inequality, the problem is homophobia. Those are the problems. Migration is the solution to those problems.” When coverage focuses only on migrants in transit, and not on the realities that have caused them to emigrate, it stigmatizes migration itself.

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These issues of terminology often reflect the way newsrooms and media outlets are structured. Lind, the Vox writer, points out that while reporters often take pains to choose appropriate terminology, editors may not be aware of the relevant context and nuances. “Usually writers who know the issue are being edited by people who don’t know as much about it,” she says. Headlines and social media text are the elements of a published story most likely to spark internet outrage — and are the elements reporters can least control. (Despite my own fastidiousness with this, I once had a story published under a headline that referred to “illegal border-crossers.”)

Truax says the problem is made worse by the fact that so many media outlets only dedicate resources to migration when it’s associated with conflict, tragedy or violence.

“Whenever migration is on the front page [or] opening the news at night, it’s because someone was detained, deported, killed, or that someone killed someone, or violated this law, et cetera,” Truax says. Outlets can reduce the stigma around migration by also covering the lives of migrants years after they arrive at their destination. “If I tell you about your neighbor from El Salvador who’s been here for years and has a kid and invites you to eat pupusas every weekend, you’ll say, but my neighbor is different,” she says.

Many outlets don’t think twice about having reporters on year-round Hollywood or football beats, so why should reporters only cover immigration in those few moments a year when a story takes hold of the public eye? More than just switching out “illegal” for “unauthorized,” she argues, media outlets need to dedicate more resources to educating their staff.

“You need a person covering and educating themselves about the issue all of the time,” she says. “That will almost automatically lead to a change in the vocabulary and the narrative.”

Madeleine Wattenbarger is a journalist based in Mexico City. Her work on human rights, migration and politics has appeared in The Nation, Vice and Columbia Journalism Review.

Production DetailsV. 1.0.1
Last edited: June 16, 2019
Author: Madeleine Wattenbarger
Editor: Alexander Zaitchik
Artwork: Photo by humberto chavez on Unsplash

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