The bias in talking about immigration

5 Oct

The debate about Alabama’s immigration enforcement law rages on, as we realize its direct and pronounced effects: according to The NY Times, “1,988 Hispanic students were absent on Friday [September 30th], about 5 percent of the entire Hispanic population of the school system” (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/04/us/after-ruling-hispanics-flee-an-alabama-town.html?scp=4&sq=alabama%20immigration%20law&st=cse). 

The Times has published a multiperspective debate on the law’s requirement that schools ascertain children’s immigration status when they register.  (http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2011/10/04/should-alabama-schools-help-catch-illegal-immigrants).

Reading these perspectives, I was struck by the language each author used to name the children affected by this law:  

  • “undocumented children” (Rosemary C. Salomone, author of True American)
  • “illegal immigrant children” (John C. Eastman, Chapman University School of Law)
  • “undocumented alien children” (Peter Spiro, Temple University law professor)
  • “illegal immigrant students” (Mark Krikorian, Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies)
  • “undocumented families” and “innocent children” (Michael Olivas, author of No Undocumented Child Left Behind)

Based on each author’s choice of words, I found myself making swift and certain assumptions about their perspectives and which sides of the debate they were championing. If you refer to children as “undocumented,” you are acknowledging their unofficial status (without passing blanket judgment as to why they lack documentation).  If you refer to children as “illegal,” you are suggesting that their humanity itself is criminal and illicit. And if you call children “aliens,” you set them apart from the rest of us–not just a country away, but a whole planet away. They become an entirely different life-form, even more foreign than we imagined.

For the most part, my knee-jerk assumptions about the authors and their attitudes bore out. 

What surprised me was the dissonance of perspective and word choice in Peter Spiro’s response “Be Careful What You Wish For.” He writes, “Undocumented aliens are members of the community, their immigration status notwithstanding… Undocumented aliens also contribute to the economy.” (I picture ET hanging out at the community center, and little blue men buying a round of beers on pay day.) As sympathetic as Spiro is to the “dislocation and hardship” that Alabama’s immigration law causes, his repeated use of the term “aliens” makes it hard to embrace the very victims he speaks for.

What’s in a name? I would say a lot.

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