With every step in the battle over immigration reform, opposing sides are using carefully chosen language as a powerful weapon. Listen to words used by anti-immigrant groups and House of Representatives Republicans, whose passage of an enforcement-only bill last December galvanized immigrant communities: Aliens. Illegals. No Amnesty. Border Security First. America Needs a Fence. The Kennedy Bill. Or hear the words chosen by advocates of citizenship, whose street rallies in major cities this spring startled their opponents into action: Undocumented workers. A path to citizenship. Guest worker programs. Comprehensive immigration reform. Even President Bush, who supports a temporary worker program while straddling the rifts in his own Republican Party, has referred to these immigrants as undocumented people who work in the shadows.

As positions have hardened over the summer, with a backlash by anti-immigrant groups swelling, these words, repeated again and again, then echoed on talk-radio shows, on television, and in the chambers of the House and Senate, have shaped not only the legislative debate but have heightened the image of a deep and expanding divide in this country. Today it seems as though a nation built proudly on its melting-pot embrace of immigrants has dissolved now into enclaves of anger and distrust.

The acrimony of the immigration debate testifies to the power of words to divide and ought to serve as a cautionary signal to journalists: What language is used in stories and headlines — and how it is used — matters. And when reporters and editors don’t pay attention to the descriptive words they use in coverage of this debate, they tend, however subconsciously, to exploit the debate rather than amplify varying positions.

An estimated 12 million people are said to reside or work in the United States without the required papers to be here. Some have overstayed their visas; others — millions most likely — have crossed the borders illegally to find employment. House Republicans want to strengthen enforcement along the border states of Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and California and make it a felony to reside here illegally. In the Senate, an effort to compromise by Arizona’s Senator John McCain, a Republican, and Senator Ted Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, would allow certain people who have been here for several years to apply for citizenship. Known as a “guest worker” program, this proposal has stiffened opposition, as the word “guest” has taken on a life of its own.

“A ‘guest’ is someone I’ve invited into my home,” William Greene, president of RightMarch.com, a conservative online group, said this summer. “Legislators such as Kennedy, McCain and others are proposing to change the definition of ‘guest’ to ‘anyone who enters illegally.’ Well, the American people aren’t that stupid.” To House Republicans, who have repeatedly taken to the floor to push for tougher immigration laws, any “guest worker” program amounts to “amnesty.” “The Senate bill wants to base our national security on get-out-of-jail free cards,” said Representative Patrick McHenry, Republican of North Carolina.

Many Republicans are fitting the immigration debate neatly into the framework of the administration’s war on terrorism. They cite recent hearings at which law enforcement authorities described some border-crossers as drug-traffickers aligned with terrorist networks. In an election year, this translates into “border security,” a theme that pollsters and analysts are crafting as a bellwether issue because it piques passion among some voters. In the recent contest to replace former Representative Randy Cunningham in California, whose conviction on charges of corruption forced him to resign, Republican Brian P. Bilbray held back his Democratic opponent’s message about a corrupt Republican-led Congress by focusing on anti-immigrant sentiments in his district on the Mexican border. And more broadly, Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster, has counseled Republicans to emphasize “border security” and to use the terms “illegal aliens” as a way to frame the issue for voters.

Listen to Geoffrey Nunberg on NPR »
– npr.org
To linguists, word choice is no accident. Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at the University of California, Berkeley and author of “Talking Right: How Conservatives Turned Liberalism into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show,” pointed me to a piece he did for NPR last spring. In it, he traced the use of the words “illegals” and “aliens.” The use of illegals, as a noun, he said, dated back to the 1930’s when it was used by the British to refer to Jews who entered Palestine without official permission. “It has been used ever since as a way of reducing individuals to their infractions,” he said.

Read Jules Witcover’s review of “Talking Right” »
In today’s parlance, he continued, “it’s revealing that alien is far more likely to be used to describe Mexicans and Central Americans than Europeans. The tens of thousands of Irish and Poles who are in the country illegally are almost always referred to as ‘immigrants,’ not ‘aliens.’

“And anti-immigrationists almost never use aliens to describe foreigners who are in the country legally — on news broadcasts, ‘illegal aliens’ outnumbers ‘legal aliens’ by about 100 to 1,” he said. “Whatever its legal meaning, when it comes to the crunch, alien means ‘brown people who snuck in.'”

Journalists Respond

That was precisely one of the images that prompted journalism organizations to sound alerts about the language being bandied about as the debate heated up last spring. The National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) and the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) issued cautions, requesting that journalists avoid the terms “illegals,” “illegal aliens,” or “aliens.” NAHJ said using “illegals” as a noun criminalized people, not their actions. For similar reasons, NAHJ advised journalists to avoid “illegal immigrant,” preferring instead the term undocumented worker or undocumented immigrant. NABJ went a step further, suggesting that journalists could also use what it considered a neutral term — “economic refugee.” But that term carries legal baggage of its own, given that many Haitian immigrants were considered to be economic refugees, not political refugees, in the 1980’s and early ’90’s and were denied asylum on those grounds.

While some commentators, like Lou Dobbs on CNN, who has made tough immigration laws a crusade in recent months, readily pepper their chatter with the terms “illegals” and “aliens,” several news organizations have reviewed, or revised, their stylebooks. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune announced earlier this summer that it was revising its stylebook so that “undocumented” worker could be used in some situations. And it cautioned against the use of the word “illegal” as an adjective before immigrant, since a person’s legal status is frequently not known.

At The New York Times, where I work, we were reminded earlier this year of style rules on immigration language. Phil Corbett, a deputy news editor, conceded that trying to use neutral, factual language was a “particularly tricky feat in such a politically charged context.” Citing Times’ style that hasn’t changed since it was updated in 1999, he noted several entries for such hot-button words. Here is what our stylebook says about the use of “alien:” “As a term for a foreigner or immigrant, while technically correct, it often conveys overtones of menace or strangeness. Resist its use except when unavoidable in a headline, or when quoting others. The preferred term for those who enter a country in violation of the law is illegal immigrants.”

Asked why the Times discourages the term “undocumented worker” or “undocumented immigrant,” Corbett explained that there’s no real dispute that “the people in question are in this country illegally, so ‘illegal immigrant’ is simply a factual description. Undocumented is a jargony and bureaucratic word whose only real purpose in this context is to serve as a euphemism. Using it would clearly signal to readers that we are going out of our way to avoid saying ‘illegal’ and so would seem like taking sides.”

The Associated Press and many newspapers also discourage the use of “illegal alien.” Still, despite the lingering notion of an alien as someone who descended from Mars, many newspapers continue to allow use of the word in tight headline counts. Corbett also noted that reporters should be vigilant when quoting sources who describe the worker program proposal as “amnesty” and make an effort to explain that such avenues to citizenship are not blanket amnesty.

Whether journalists’ use of careful, neutral language could alter the debate in any way remains dubious. While it might shield news organizations from charges of bias, it certainly has not stopped forces on either side from redesigning their messages. The latest coinage of immigration terms from the political corridors of Capitol Hill is an effort by House Republicans to tarnish the Senate’s bipartisan bills, first drafted by McCain-Kennedy and then in compromise form by Republican Senators Mel Martinez of Florida and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. Staunch opponents of guest worker programs, like Congressman James Sensenbrenner, Jr., the powerful chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, have taken to calling the Senate’s proposal “the Kennedy bill,” an apparent attempt to brush the bill with Kennedy’s ultraliberalism. The switch hasn’t gone unnoticed — either by journalists or politicians — and indeed has provided humorous asides to what has become a bitter partisan dispute that might not be resolved before the midterm elections in November.

Asked recently what he thought of the label repeatedly uttered by his fellow Republicans, one that strips him of authorship, Senator McCain shrugged and said, “You can call it a banana if you want to.”

“I’m not a banana,” Senator Kennedy protested, to laughter all around.

Kate Phillips, a 2003 Nieman Fellow, is political editor for nytimes.com, after several years as an editor in the Washington, D.C. bureau and in New York.

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