My Words!

As I sat down to write a feature on immigration for Governing's July issue, part of me wished I were writing about a less controversial topic -- like abortion.
by | July 9, 2007

7cover As I sat down to write a feature on immigration for Governing's July issue, part of me wished I were writing about a less controversial topic -- like abortion.

Don't get me wrong, abortion can stir political passions, but, for a journalist, the language of the abortion debate is settled law. One side is called "pro-life" and the other is "pro-choice." It doesn't matter that the pro-choice people call the pro-life people "anti-choice" or that the pro-life people call the pro-choice people "pro-abortion." Each side gets to decide how we refer to them and that's that.

Immigration, however, lacks this sort of grand compromise. Before I could write my article, therefore, I had to make a series of linguistic choices, ones that are as charged as the debate over immigration policy itself.

First, what to call the 12 million or so people who are the subject of the controversy? I instinctively recoiled against "illegal aliens" -- to me that's E.T. and Chewbacca robbing a bank together.

In everyday conversation, we don't refer to foreigners as aliens (Who talks about the aliens who arrived at Ellis Island?) I'm not one to argue with the American vernacular. "Aliens" never appears in my article.

Instead, I opted for "immigrants." But what adjective to attach? Though literally accurate, "undocumented" didn't seem quite right. The lack of documents per se isn't the reason immigration is the second hottest political issue in the country (after Iraq).

Rather, their unlawful presence is the source of the consternation. Hence, "illegal" is my adjective of choice, although undocumented does show up a few times, when I got sick of repeating myself.

Next up, I had to contend with the one little word that IS the debate: amnesty. Consider this word's power: Last year I asked Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano a not-at-all-confrontational question, but one that happened to include the a-word. It was something to the effect of what her trick was to avoid being tagged as supporting amnesty -- why she had been more successful than other members of her party, given that her position on immigration is similar to most Democrats.

She paused and gave me a look that was somewhere between "I didn't like your question" and "Laser beams are about to come out of my eyes and strike you dead." Then she answered, but without ever saying "amnesty."

In other contexts, I'd say amnesty without thinking twice. If astate were promising not to prosecute people who came forward and paidtheir back taxes, that would be an amnesty. What's different aboutimmigration, however, is that the debate isn't just on the merits ofamnesty, but also its meaning.

Supporters of the federal immigration bill say that requiringillegal immigrants to meet requirements, including the payment of largefines, to legalize their status isn't amnesty. I didn't want to judgewhether they are right. As a result, I only used the a-word twice.

Once, it appears in quotes, when I noted that Georgia's LaborCommissioner referred to a provision of the state's law as amnesty -- Ithought his use of the word was interesting. The other time was when Isaid that activist D.A. King "blogs against amnesty..." I didn't putamnesty in quotes that time and, if you don't understand why, mull overthis headline from the Washington Times: "Rhode Island official OKs gay 'marriage'."

Last question: How to describe the opposing sides in the debate? Oneword that doesn't appear in my story is "comprehensive" -- as in"comprehensive immigration reform."

To use that phrase would have suggested that only those who favor acertain set of policy changes (namely, a path to citizenship forillegal immigrants and greater border enforcement) have a solution tothe problem. If they're "comprehensive," everyone else isn't, right?That wasn't a judgment I was prepared to make.

Luckily, I could pretty much sidestep that issue because my storyfocused on those on the other side of the debate: The people who wantmore border security, more enforcement of immigration law, newpenalties for employers that hire illegal immigrants and no path tocitizenship. You know them, they're the "What part of 'illegal' don'tyou understand?" folks, the disciples of Tom Tancredo and Lou Dobbs.But how to refer to them or their position in a couple of words,without wasting space?

I never answered that one to my satisfaction, although "tough,""strict," "stringent, "hard-liner" and of course the headline,"Crackdown," show up in my story (Hard-liner? What is this, the SovietUnion?). But if they're "tough," what does that make the other side? Abunch of sissies?

On the other hand, one lesson from the abortion debate is that notevery name for one side implies something about the other side. When Iuse "pro-life," I'm not saying the other side is "anti-life."

The abortion debate also shows that convenient solutions tend toemerge for these sorts of linguistic dilemmas over time. We'll haveplenty of it -- immigration isn't going away anytime soon.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman | Former Staff Writer |