Words Cloud ‘Illegals’ Debate

Jean Hopfensperger, Star Tribune, August 09, 2006

[On the other side, see Sam Francis’s essay on “The Origins of ‘Racism’: The Curious Beginnings Of A Useless Word” featured as today’s classic article.]

What should you call the men and women who sneak across U.S. borders? The answer goes to the heart of an issue dividing the nation.

To Dell Eriksson, they’re “illegal aliens.” ‘Immigrant’—as a term—is someone here lawfully,” said Eriksson, a retiree from Brooklyn Center who thinks the country lets in too many foreigners.

Nathan Thompson contends these people are “undocumented workers.”The word ‘illegal’ conjures images of hardened criminals coming to the U.S. . . and that is completely false,” said Thompson, a teacher who lives in St. Paul. “The phrases ‘illegal alien’ and ‘illegal immigrant’ appeal to base-level emotions and cut off debate.”

Few issues rile up immigration activists more than the words used to describe men and women who cross the border without permission. They are the subject of 30 U.S. House “field hearings” on immigration reform this summer, including one scheduled for Sept. 1 in Dubuque, Iowa, that Minnesotans are planning to attend.

The war of words is more than semantics, say researchers who study such matters. What you call these men and women shapes public opinion of them, and that in turn frames the debate over how to change immigration laws.

For example, if these people are “undocumented workers,” the Senate’s plan to create a guest-worker program so they can work here legally would seem to be the logical solution. But if they are “illegal aliens,” the House immigration proposal that focuses on tightening border security sounds like a sensible approach.

The problem is, none of the descriptions is really accurate, said former U.S. Immigration Commissioner Doris Meissner, now an analyst at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. “This is not a simple thing,” Meissner said.

Many “undocumented” workers actually entered the country with documents, but then overstayed their visas, she said. And immigrants can be legal or illegal based simply on what country they’re coming from.

A Cuban whose raft lands in the United States can lawfully enter the country and become a U.S. resident within a year, she said. But a Mexican who swims across the Rio Grande River has virtually no path to legal residency—ever.

Meanwhile, individual immigrants are not necessarily illegal, but there can be illegal immigration, Meissner said. Even the federal government can’t make up its mind. The U.S. Census Bureau calls them “unauthorized immigrants.” Other federal agencies refer to them as “illegal aliens.”

Emotional issue

At a Minnesota News Council forum this summer on how the news media cover immigration, the language of immigration sparked pointed debate. Eriksson, a self-described “old-school environmentalist” long concerned about U.S. population growth, was among those in the audience. He thinks immigrant rights groups are watering down the problem when they call people crossing the border “unauthorized workers” or “undocumented workers.” If these people are ‘unauthorized workers,’ does that mean a bank robber is making an ‘unauthorized withdrawal?’ “ he asked after the forum.

Others argued that people cannot be illegal. Or at the very least, people who hire the workers should be labeled “illegal employers.”

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Even the news media are divided on the wording. Fox News, for example, calls them “illegal aliens.” Most major newspapers call them “illegal immigrants,” although the National Association of Hispanic Journalists calls that term “dehumanizing.”

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Washington—U.S. Muslim groups criticized President George W. Bush on Thursday for calling a foiled plot to blow up airplanes part of a “war with Islamic fascists,” saying the term could inflame anti-Muslim tensions.

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“We believe this is an ill-advised term and we believe that it is counter-productive to associate Islam or Muslims with fascism,” said Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations advocacy group.

“We ought to take advantage of these incidents to make sure that we do not start a religious war against Islam and Muslims,” he told a news conference in Washington.

“We urge him (Bush) and we urge other public officials to restrain themselves.”

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Hours after the news broke, Bush said it was “a stark reminder that this nation is at war with Islamic fascists who will use any means to destroy those of us who love freedom, to hurt our nation.”

Bush and other administration officials have used variations of the term “Islamo-fascism” on several occasions in the past to describe militant groups including al Qaeda, its allies in Iraq and Hizbollah in Lebanon.

Many American Muslims, who say they have felt singled out for discrimination since the September 11 attacks, reject the term and say it unfairly links their faith to notions of dictatorship, oppression and racism.

“The problem with the phrase is it attaches the religion of Islam to tyranny and fascism, rather than isolating the threat to a specific group of individuals,” said Edina Lekovic, spokeswoman for the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles.

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Bush upset many Muslims after the September 11 attacks by referring to the global war against terrorism early on as a “crusade,” a term which for many Muslims connotes a Christian battle against Islam. The White House quickly stopped using the expression, expressing regrets if it had caused offense.

Mohamed Elibiary, a Texas-based Muslim activist, said he was upset by the president’s latest comments because he was concerned they would stir up resentment of Muslims in America.

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