Current Weather
The Spy FM

In Immigration Debate, ‘Undocumented’ Vs. ‘Illegal’ Is More Than Just Semantics

Filed by KOSU News in US News.
January 30, 2013

On Monday, we pointed to how the bipartisan Gang of Eight senators mostly avoided the term “illegal immigrant” in the language of their immigration reform plan.

It looks like President Obama did the same in his address on the issue the next day.

The news website Colorlines took a look at the text from the president’s speech and found that Obama used the term just once, but used the term “undocumented immigrants” four times.

The language used in the debate over immigration has itself become the subject of fierce contention. Advocates for immigration reform (like Colorlines) say the term “illegal immigrant” is dehumanizing and racialized. They point to a 2005 memo by Frank Luntz, a Republican consultant, that called on the party to use that term in public statements to push for tighter immigration enforcement.

The term has become so loaded that it prompted the Hispanic Leadership Network, a conservative group, to issue a memo to Republicans on Tuesday calling for Republicans to stop using “illegal immigrant,” too.

“When talking about immigrants: Do use ‘undocumented immigrant’ when referring to those here without documentation,” the organization wrote. “Please consider these tonally sensitive messaging points as you discuss immigration, regardless of your position.”

The memo comes as Republicans are trying to repair their image among Latino voters, who voted overwhelmingly for President Obama in November. A poll by Fox News Latino found that 46 percent of Latino voters think “illegal immigrants” is offensive while a little over a third said they thought it was accurate. But the term “undocumented immigrant” is not without its own political connotations. It’s been the term of choice for activists in favor of reform; Obama’s choice to use it seems to signal that he’s on their side in the debate.

Jonathan Rosa, a linguistic anthropologist at the University of Massachusetts, told NPR that both phrases muddle the conversation about immigration reform.

” ‘Undocumented’ and ‘illegal’ seem to be signaling one’s stance when it comes to immigration reform than it is about characterizing the situation in a precise way,” Rosa said. He said the State Department’s definition of immigrant explicitly refers to lawful status, making the term “illegal immigrant” a contradiction. But undocumented immigrant doesn’t quite fit either because the term “makes it seem as though there’s [just been] an administrative mistake, as if a document wasn’t issued.”

Rosa said the fight over the terminology isn’t trivial, since the ways people use language can have social consequences. “It’s not simply a way of describing the world or representing the world; it’s a way of taking action in the world,” he said.

And in case you were wondering: Rosa says he uses the term “unauthorized migrant” in his academic writing. “A ‘migrant” is just someone who is moving across national borders,” he said. “It doesn’t make any presumptions about the legal status of people.” [Copyright 2013 NPR]

Leave a Reply

11AM to 12PM The Story

The Story

The Story with Dick Gordon brings the news home through first-person accounts. The live weekday program is passionate, personal, immediate and relevant to listeners, focusing on the news where it changes our lives, causes us to stop and rethink, inspires us.

Listen Live Now!

12PM to 1PM Fresh Air

Fresh Air

This one-hour program features Terry Gross' in-depth interviews with prominent cultural and entertainment figures, as well as distinguished experts on current affairs and news.

View the program guide!

1PM to 2PM Talk of the Nation

Talk of the Nation

Journalist Neal Conan leads a productive exchange of ideas and opinions on the issues that dominate the news landscape.

View the program guide!

Upcoming Events in your area (Submit your event today!)

Streaming audio and podcasts

Stream KOSU on your smartphone

Phone Streaming

SmartPhone listening options on this page are intended for many iPhones, Blackberries, etc. with low-cost software applications available to listen to our full-time web streams, both News on KOSU-1 and Classical on KOSU-2.

Learn more about our complete range of streaming services

We're perfecting the patient experience - Stillwater Medical Center