Words matter in immigration debate
Undocumented immigrant vs illegal immigrant vs illegal alien
To say there’s a chasm as wide as the Rio Grande between both sides of the immigration debate would be an understatement. The conversation about compromise is a non-starter because neither side can even agree on what terms to use.
US Attorney for Massachusetts Andrew Lelling, in a recent sit-down with CommonWealth, acknowledged his office is ramping up identifying defendants by their nationalities if they are immigrants who commit a crime in the country. And Lelling said he refuses to call them undocumented, the term favored by immigrant advocates, because what they have done is illegal, much like carrying an illegal handgun, “not an undocumented handgun.”
“I think word choice is often a political statement,” Lelling said. “The term undocumented immigrant strikes me as a consciously politicized term. It’s a euphemism… So I don’t use the term undocumented immigrant where advocates in this area might. I say illegal immigrant because that strikes me as more literally correct.”
Bristol Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, a strident supporter of President Trump’s immigration policies, and Marion Davis of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA), joined The Codcast for an impassioned discussion over the tensions of words in the hot-button debate.
“Human beings are not illegal,” said Davis, explaining that immigration advocates view the term as dehumanizing and offensive.
It appears to be the phraseology the Department of Justice wants US Attorney press offices around the country to use when identifying foreign-born defendants who are in the country illegally. CNN recently ran a story based on an email they obtained showing the Justice Department has instructed press offices to use “undocumented aliens” in their press releases.
“The word ‘undocumented’ is not based in US code and should not be used to describe someone’s illegal presence in the country,” the email from Washington to all the offices said. It also said that even those who are in the country legally should be identified by their country of citizenship, not their residence.
Davis and Hodgson differed on the public perception of identifying someone by his or her nationality. Davis said it gives the false impression the country is being overrun by criminal immigrants, something she said studies show is far from the case.
But Hodgson said “it’s not something to celebrate” that immigrants who are here illegally commit crime at a smaller rate than US citizens.“That’s a crime that would not have been committed” if they weren’t here at all, Hodgson said. Hodgson added that advocates should explain their reasoning to “angel moms and dads,” the term coined by conservatives and immigration opponents to describe families of victims of deadly crimes committed by an immigrant here illegally.
It’s another loaded term in the fevered debate with no end of words.