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Words Matter

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Political debates can often be won by defining the terms of the debate;  when we talk about the role of government in society the terms we choose can define people’s opinions on the subject. For example, if you ask a group of people if they like public parks, they will have a much more positive response than if you ask them if they like government-run parks.

Colorlines.com, a daily news site that focuses on racial justice issues, has produced an in-depth analysis of how the immigration debate has been radically altered to criminalize immigrants and distort public perception on the issue.

At the center of their analysis is the use of the words “illegal” and “alien” to describe immigrants, and how the mainstream media has adopted these terms as neutral, ignoring the correct terms “undocumented” and “unauthorized”.

The most significant turning point came in 1994 with the debate over California’s Proposition 187, which barred undocumented immigrants from public schools and non-emergency health care. […] A look at the Los Angeles Times’ archives during the years of this debate shows an eruption in the use of “illegal” and “alien” to describe immigrants themselves. In 1994, the year Californians voted on Prop 187,  the Times published 1,411 articles that labeled people “illegal” or “alien,” either as an adjective or, in some cases, as a noun—as in “illegals.” The same year, the Times published just 218 articles that used “undocumented” or “unauthorized” to describe people living in the country without papers.

The article does a great job of outlining the history and politics behind the use of the “i-word” in the immigration debate. It also points to a dangerous rhetorical phenomenon: equating immigrants to terrorists.  In a 25-page GOP memo to Republican legislators, strategist Frank Luntz includes several messaging tactics for shaping the conversation around migration in this country. One of them particularly stands out:

Right now, hundreds of illegal immigrants are crossing the border almost every day. Some of them are part of drug cartels. Some are career criminals. Some may even be terrorists.

Let’s break down this message: Notice that Luntz leaves out the fact that the majority of immigrants come to work and provide for their family, focusing instead on creating an aura of fear. He sets up a sense of immanent invasion by saying that “right now” “every day” criminals that are part of drug cartels are coming to get you. But that is just build-up for the message he tags along at the end. Notice the use of the “may even be” in the last phrase that equates immigrants to terrorists.  He protects himself from being accused of lying by merely suggesting the possibility of terrorism, but the suggestion is all you need in a campaign to create fear.

This Monday Rep. Lamar Smith of the 21st District of Texas, published an opinion piece on Fox News.com titled Immigration Enforcement and Border Security Are the First Line Defense Against Terrorists. Following a now decades old strategy of equating immigrants with terrorists, Rep. Smith continues the Luntz tradition of using the tragedy of 9/11 to stoke the fears of Americans and  politically profit from this division.  Again, notice the “may also be,”

Terrorists may also be exploiting weaknesses in the Southwest border to enter the U.S. illegally.

This rhetoric has been so overused in the previous decade that it almost fails to shock us. We have grown accustomed to hearing politicians exploit the tragedy of 9/11 to create a nativist fear that is turned upon the country’s scapegoats: immigrants.

The truth, the facts, they no longer matter. The Migration Policy Institute reports that the despite increased efforts to seal national borders since the 1980s, the United States was unable to prevent the continued growth of the unauthorized population. In fact, harsh enforcement had a measurable effect only in a number of unexpected consequences.  While 97% of people who tried to cross the border illegally were successful on a first or second effort (from 2002-2009):

(T)he cost of illegal entry has risen dramatically, as up to 70%  to 90%  of unauthorized Mexicans now rely on a smuggler to cross the border (up from 50% to 78% from 1986 to 1993), and smuggling fees have increased from about $700 in 1986 through 993 to $2,800 in 2007 to 2009. These higher fees have attracted organized crime syndicates, previously not a significant factor in migrant smuggling, and illegal immigration has become more closely connected to narcotics flow and other contraband.

So the rational truth is that while Luntz was equating immigrants to cartels, thus making the case for increased enforcement, he was actually fulfilling his promise by pushing migration underground and using taxpayer dollars as a “stimulus” for the drug trade syndicates.

But fear is by nature irrational, and easily manipulated. Take a moment to visit Colorlines.com and pledge to drop the “i-word” and help us kindly correct our neighbors and friends, because no human being is “illegal”.

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