Those who are driving the effort to control and contort language in the immigration debate are not truly motivated by the notion that the term “illegal alien” is a pejorative. This is a distraction. The real goal of those demanding that media outlets, courts, and now the Library of Congress supplant accurate legal terminology with activist-created terms is to eradicate the distinction between citizen and non-citizen, between legal activity and illegal activity, between “us” and “them” so that the concept of borders and the nation state slowly slip away. Any official heading an organization or governmental agency who thinks they are being sensitive by bowing to demands to alter their use of language is being played by the open-border crowd.
The most vivid and honest example of the motivations of those demanding a change to language in the immigration debate happened last year after the Santa Barbara News-Press used the term “illegals” in a headline: “Illegals Line Up For Driver’s Licenses.” If there is any legitimate critique of this headline, it’s that the term “illegals” rings slightly crude. Using a legal term like “illegal aliens” would be preferable.
But a more accurate legal term would not have appeased the illegal aliens and their supporters who protested outside the newspaper’s headquarters. Their response revealed the true nature of this debate over language. In the middle of the night, the News-Press building was vandalized with paintball splatters and graffiti. The bold, red, spray-painted message that was left on the building is key to understanding this debate: “THE BORDER IS ILLEGAL NOT THE PEOPLE WHO CROSS IT”
No terms, adjectives, or descriptors that separate law-breaking foreigners from citizens are acceptable to the open-border crowd and they will push until the media and the courts refer to illegal aliens as simply “Americans.” This is not hyperbole — one California newspaper has done just that, while two others have referred to illegal aliens as Californians.
In 2012, the Los Angeles Times and the San Jose Mercury News described illegal aliens as “undocumented Californians” in articles about driver’s licenses. Of course, these individuals aren’t Californians any more than a citizen of Nevada who crosses the state line to visit Disneyland. Responses from the newspapers to my inquiries about why they felt foreigners who don’t even belong in the country deserve a title indicating state citizenship were lackluster.
A year later, the San Francisco Chronicle referred to an illegal alien from South Korea as “one of an estimated 2.1 million American youths” who might benefit from President Obama’s controversial Deferred Action (DACA) program. The paper never responded to my inquiry about why they consider illegal aliens registering for DACA to be “American.”
This transition didn’t happen overnight. The open-border crowd had its first success when the Associated Press decided to appease illegal aliens and their advocates by dropping “illegal alien” and warning against it in their stylebook. In 2012, the AP declared that it would use “illegal immigrant” but would not go as far as the advocates wanted, noting that terms like “undocumented” were problematic because they “can make a person’s illegal presence in the country appear to be a matter of minor paperwork.” The AP also noted that “many illegal immigrants aren’t undocumented at all,” on account of having many documents in their possession.
The AP also declared that it would not buy into the claim that the term “illegal immigrant” is offensive, noting that the AP’s writers “refer routinely to illegal loggers, illegal miners, illegal vendors” and that the language “simply means that a person is logging, mining, selling, etc., in violation of the law — just as illegal immigrants have immigrated in violation of the law.”
Taking a cue from the AP, journalists with other news outlets around the country declared that they would also stop using “illegal alien” and instead use “illegal immigrant.” The reporters thought they were being righteous, not understanding that this change was but a stepping stone in the minds of open border advocates.
As soon as these journalists agreed to drop “illegal alien” the advocates moved to their next demand. Less than six months after the AP’s decision to stick with “illegal immigrant,” the AP caved, once again. This time the AP dropped “illegal immigrant” altogether, claiming that it was dropping use of labels noting that AP would use “illegal only to refer to an action, not a person: illegal immigration, but not illegal immigrant.” The AP did not acknowledge the ongoing “Drop the I-Word Campaign” by open-border advocates that clearly played a role.
The AP now recommends journalists use “a person living in the country illegally” or “without legal permission.” Of course, one of the top rules in journalism is “be concise.” That rule is tossed out the window for illegal aliens. Why do so many journalists think foreigners who evade our Border Patrol or lie to the State Department and overstay a visa are deserving of special treatment? Is it that they’re worried their offices might be attacked by an angry mob?
Many media outlets have blindly followed the AP’s lead, marching the journalism world to a place where there is no such thing as illegal immigration. It has gotten so bad that news outlets seeking free content from people like myself feel the need to put disclaimers at the top of opinion pieces that use legally-accurate terminology, for fear that some people (read: open-border fanatics) might be offended.
The media’s bowing to illegal aliens and their supporters shows up in other areas as well. Not too long ago, everyone referred to mass legalizations of illegal aliens as amnesty. Today, the media has embraced the language of advocacy groups and regularly uses “pathway to citizenship” or “regularization of status” or “comprehensive immigration reform.” But the media still refers to tax amnesties as amnesty. It’s just another example of the media’s special treatment of illegal aliens.
The term “alien” is not, nor has it never been a pejorative. It’s a concise, legal term that helps with straightforward communication in a very complex area of law and policy. A foreigner can be a legal alien (e.g. a tourist) or an illegal alien (e.g. a visa-overstayer). The word “alien” was recently used 26 times in the Supreme Court during oral argument for United States v. Texas, most often by the Obama administration’s solicitor general, but also by Sotomayor, Kegan, Roberts, and Ginsburg.
Use of “alien” indicates a writer supports clean writing devoid of any value judgement, something journalists should aspire to. Use of “undocumented immigrant” or some similar euphemism suggests a lack of impartiality on the part of a writer, something journalists should avoid.
Furthermore, referring to every foreigner as an “immigrant” muddies the debate and makes it difficult to draw the line between “us” and “them” — this is a goal of the open-border crowd. If we’re all immigrants (aka “a nation of immigrants”), what right do you have to tell someone else they cannot come and live here?
In reality, we’re a nation of citizens. And as citizens, we have a right to decide who gets to immigrate here, how many people get to immigrate here, and also set the conditions they must abide by if they want to stay. Anything less than that destroys the concept of citizenship and sovereignty. Media shouldn’t help the open-border crowd achieve its goal.
Jon Feere is the Legal Policy Analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies.