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- 03-26-2006, 01:50 PM #1
Kiss Me, I'm Illegal
http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/26/weeki ... o.ART.html
March 26, 2006
Glossary | The Un-Citizens
Kiss Me, I'm Illegal
By PAUL VITELLO
MURKY self-described patriot groups call them "terrorists." On combative talk radio shows the term is "illegal aliens." Advocates for immigrants prefer the Emma Lazarus-evoking "economic refugees."
The most common label attached to the estimated 12 million foreign-born people living in the United States without visas may be "illegal immigrants," even though some grammarians argue that the adjective can modify actions and things (like left turns and hallucinogenic drugs) but not people. President Bush, a proponent of offering citizenship to at least some of them, has used the more optimistic and implicitly promising term "undocumented immigrants."
There is an almost magical power in naming things. To give a person, an act or a group its name is to define it, assert a measure of control over how it is perceived. (See Adam, in Genesis 2:20, who "gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field." Also, see the playbooks of most campaign managers.)
Like the battles over civil rights and abortion, the contest over immigration has been joined as much in the naming of things as in the writing of laws. Consider the labyrinth of language in play as Congress grapples with an overhaul of immigration policy, its effort to fix what is widely considered a broken system of deciding how many and which foreigners are allowed to enter, work in or become citizens of the United States.
Tumbling in the air of the debate like so many juggled balls are enough words and catch phrases — some old, some new — to form a peculiar dialect of the national ambivalence: Guest workers. Willing workers. America's security. Permanent temporary residents. Immigrant smuggling syndicate. Earned legalization. Virtual fence. Birthright citizenship abuse (coined by lawmakers who would cancel the citizenship rights of children born here to illegal immigrants). Anchor babies (the term coined for such children). Police state (what Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York says would result if illegal immigration were criminalized). Two-time losers (Justice Antonin Scalia's phrase for illegal immigrants who are deported twice — one such immigrant brought a case heard by the court last week).
George Lakoff, a linguistics professor at the University of California at Berkeley and author of "Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate," says the different language used in any public policy debate is ultimately a contest for the public mind. "Metaphors repeated often enough eventually become part of your physical brain," he said. "Use the word 'illegal' often enough, which suggests criminal, which suggests immoral, and you have framed the issue of immigration to a remarkable degree."
Every side, of course, claims that its choice of words is not only correct but a reflection of the literal truth. Those favoring more restrictive laws, for instance, assert that people who violate immigration laws are, de facto, illegal residents.
"Immigration is such an emotional issue at this point that every word is being hotly contested," said Frank Sherry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a group based in Washington that advocates a liberalized policy. "You know where people stand pretty much from the language they use," said Mr. Sherry, who uses the term "undocumented immigrants."
A House bill that would stiffen penalties for unauthorized immigration adds yet another term to the list of synonyms for the illegal immigrant: felon. Under that bill, which led to protests in Washington, Chicago and San Francisco a couple of weeks ago, illegal immigrants would be charged with aggravated felony and face five years in prison.
A Senate bill produced yet more terminology — earned legalization — which would apply to illegal immigrants who pay their back taxes and stiff fines, promise to learn English and wait in line. Earned legalization is not to be confused with amnesty, a word in the immigration debate that is a bugaboo to all sides, on the theory that rewarding illegal behavior would only lead to more of it.
The language can be so arcane that even people who track immigration policy might have been hard pressed to follow the conversation on ABC's "This Week" between the host, George Stephanopoulos, and the Senate majority leader, Bill Frist. In one 10-second exchange, Mr. Frist said he was for enforcement, and Mr. Stephanopoulos asked if Mr. Frist was also for guest worker, to which Mr. Frist replied that he was for guest worker but against amnesty.
Enforcement, in the debate, is code for border security. The enforcement-only bill passed by the House focuses exclusively on tightening border security. It authorizes the building of a 700-mile fence, or the deployment of electronic devices and drone aircraft to create a "virtual fence." It does not establish a guest worker program.
The enforcement-plus bills under review in the Senate (there are three, with a fourth pending) tighten border security and create versions of a guest worker program. (In Washington, to be in favor of "enforcement-only" or "enforcement-plus" is to state one's immigration weltanschauung.)
As for the meaning of "guest worker" in the enforcement-plus universe, it depends. It can signify a long-term foreign worker who might eventually become a citizen. It can also indicate someone who works for two years with no such expectation, and then goes home. It can be a seasonal worker who goes home after every harvest. And in the most restrictive version, it is perhaps a little like the homey status of the political prisoners in Frank O'Connor's short story "Guests of the Nation." The prisoners are treated like friends of the family until one is ordered executed in the national interest.
Ultimately, there may be no neutral language possible in the immigration debate — any more than there is in other emotionally charged human interaction, said Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and the author of the best-selling "You're Wearing That? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation." Ms. Tannen claims no special expertise about immigration, but she knows communication. "People cling to words, and use them, as a way of showing whose side they're on, who their people are," she said.
Guillermo Gómez-Peña, a performance artist and writer born in Mexico known for his observations about the cultural life of the border, has coined his own term for the movement of people, legally or illegally, temporarily or permanently, willingly or not, from south of the border to the north. In a recent performance, he mordantly referred to it all as "original sin."Need Law Enforcement Information? Click here for the Alipac Action Panel