The language we use: “foreign“ vs ”immigrant”

In the writing and editing of a story I’d spent a couple of days on — the xenophobic attacks against Somali and other shops owned by foreign-born South Africans —I stumbled into murky waters regarding language, bias and intention.

P. Kim Bui
Feb 2, 2015 · 5 min read

Most stories writing about the unrest and looting in the Soweto area used phrases like “foreign” and “foreign national.” My colleague, Wendy Carrillo, pointed out that using the word “immigrant” might be more relatable.

The beauty of is that we all come from very different backgrounds: migrant, non-migrant, European, American, etc.

From my point of view, and speaking as a Vietnamese American whose parents weren’t necessarily refugees, “immigrant” means, to me, that someone has come to a country seeking permanent status.

That thought was subconscious when we started discussing whether immigrant or foreign was the right word. My mind shifted to part of a quote from one of the shopkeepers: “We are not safe, foreigners are not safe here,” one of them said. “I’m not going back to Ethiopia but if I get the chance to, I will move to another country.”

He didn’t want to stay. The shop owner who is charged with the shooting death of a teenager — the event that started the unrest — is a Somali national. It appears many of these shop owners came to get away from the state of their homeland, but were only there to make a living. They had no desire to become “South African.” That’s not an uncommon experience in many parts of the world.

im·mi·grant ˈiməɡrənt/


a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country.

Is immigrant the right word to describe a foreign-born person who is in the country, but may not want to stay? A foreign national is defined as someone who born outside the United States, is subject to a foreign government and who hasn’t been naturalized under U.S. law. Was it the right phrase? I had to ask.

Were the words interchangeable?

The language we use is powerful. This is why there was such an intense debate about the term “illegal” in the United States when referring to someone who did not have status in a country and was there without documentation.

Language can hurt. It can lift you up, it can tarnish a whole story, it can define a movement.

In my quest to be technically correct in describing these shop owners, I stumbled into a murky area of personal experience.

We debated the phrase for close to an hour. At the end, I came to conclude that I should specify immigration status when I know it, but otherwise do my best to write around it: “I think what this is coming down to is that neither of these terms are the ‘ideal.’ And we all define it differently.”

And it’s true. Each one of us had different feelings on when foreign-born, immigrant, and other related terms should be used.

I was later talking to a friend about this and they also brought up that American culture defines people less by nationality than by race. My ethnicity is Vietnamese and my best friend is mixed-race German and Mexican. We both call ourselves “American.” I may be Asian, and she mixed race, but our nationalities aren’t a commonly spoken about thing. In a sense, the United States prides itself on being a melting pot, a country of immigrants. Is that always the case?

In a British study looking at the term migrant, they found that others defined immigrants as seeking asylum, or somewhere ‘to live’ or ‘to settle.’ It later found that public definitions of immigrants often include those who are not actually subject to immigration control or law in the UK.

A 2012 look at the term by The Migrationist brings up another point:

In the minds of the British public migrant status is often understood more in terms of symbolic difference or perceived deviance from the ‘norm’ than an individual’s length of stay, citizenship or right to abode. As a result migrants, at least in common parlance, are not necessarily people who have moved across a border or who were born elsewhere. This is in part the result of the fact that immigration has historically been, and continues to be, heavily radicalised.

The lesson is not to be overly cautious about the language we use. It’s not to discontinue to use of foreign; in fact, I’m still not sure I made the right call.

As journalists, we are doing what we can to describe the world around us, using as words as accurately as possible. Yet what is accurate is sometimes relative. Our experiences color how we describe things, and it’s important to remember that.

Some bullet points I’ve written down for myself, partially inspired by this list by writing coach Roy Peter Clark:

  1. What’s the legal, and dictionary definition of the term?
  2. How might someone with a different background and life story than myself read into the words I’m using? Does it mean something different in another culture?
  3. Does what I’m saying accurately describe the situation, in simple terms? Would it be clear to my startup friends and my mother?
  4. Who is using the word, who is not and why?

the team

global news, our way — and that means your way, too.

P. Kim Bui

Written by

Social + Reporting + Journalism for NowThisNews. Co-founder #wjchat. Is almost always freezing.

the team

global news, our way — and that means your way, too.

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