Illegal vs. Undocumented: The Language of Immigration
Lou Dobbs Tonight on CNN this afternoon ran several pieces on illegal immigration and how several major presidential candidates are beginning to take position on this issue. It was not so much the content of the segments that were so striking, but the rhetoric of this and all immigration coverage. While watching how CNN connected illegal immigration to gang violence and a "new American mafia", I began wondering how different the coverage would be without the term "illegal alien". Without a doubt many conversations about border control and immigration issues would look much different if popular media used 'undocumented workers' instead. Illegal alien and undocumented worker convey two separate messages about tolerance and inequality.
We have discussed the power of language and the media in issues of social stratification and it is particularly evident regarding immigration. Using the term illegal to describe a human being immediately identifies them as an 'criminal' whether or not those individuals are making honest attempts at citizenship or living peacefully in the United States. How can a human by nature be illegal? If what makes them 'illegal' in this country is the absence of proper documentation, why not use the obvious and more descriptive term 'undocumented?'
Even more obvious is the use of 'alien', which instantly identifies undocumented workers as an other and foreign. Even though 'alien' references The Alien and Sedition Acts, many Americans seem to connect the term with science fiction and a being from outer space. Using workers again clarifies the current situation and states the reality that the majority of people come to the United States seeking work and economic relief.
I argue that the current administration continues to use this term as a way to generate unnecessary fear and intolerance for the immigrant population in the U.S. Unable to control an issue resulting from free-market trade and globalization, by treating undocumented workers as illegal aliens the issue moves to the individual level. The issue becomes individuals being deviant from the American hardworking honest ethic rather than a systemic political oppression of a population.
Many organizations are beginning to speak out about the usage of illegal alien and illegal immigration both in popular media and in current legislation. It is much easier for the major media outlets like CNN to connect illegal aliens to gang violence since they are already seen as criminals. However, 'undocumented workers' eliminates the swirling negativity and oppression around immigration. I urge everyone to consider how conversations around immigration would be largely different if we witnessed a change in language.