4/15/2006

propaganda war

Below is a piece by the Phil. Inquirer on the illegal/undocumented debate.

Here's my thing -- there is no neutral term in this debate. We can put together impassioned arguments for one or the other, but either way we're choosing a term that reveals a certain agenda.

- Sarah

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War on words heats up in immigration debate
"Undocumented," not "illegal," some say. Others scoff. A linguist calls it a "propaganda war."

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By Lini S. Kadaba
Inquirer Staff Writer

Are the 12 million people living in the United States in violation of immigration law "illegal aliens" or "undocumented workers"?

Or how about "global economic refugees"?

As Congress and the nation continue to debate changes to immigration policy, factions ranging from the National Association of Hispanic Journalists to Rush Limbaugh are engaged in a war of words over how to refer to U.S. residents affected by the proposed legislation.

Last week, the Latino journalists' group called on the media to stop "dehumanizing" undocumented workers - the association's preferred term - by labeling them "illegal aliens" and "illegals," a term the group called particularly insensitive.

Other journalist associations, including those representing blacks and Asians, gave their support.

If the distinction seems like "splitting hairs" to some, said Iván Román, the Latino group's executive director, "to us, it's not. The language helps frame or distort the argument."

Words one side finds neutral, the other considers an exercise in political correctness intended to obscure many immigrants' status as law-breakers.

"They're not 'illegal,' " Limbaugh, the conservative political commentator, cracked on his syndicated radio show last week. "Why humiliate them? Call them 'undocumented aliens.'

"Well, let's call people like Jesse James and Willie Sutton 'undocumented bank withdrawers,' " he said. "Just so we don't hurt anybody's feelings... somebody who's not paying taxes... 'undocumented taxpayers.' "

The word-slinging - which recalls the tussle over the abortion-debate terms pro-life and pro-choice and the recent controversy over refugee to describe Katrina evacuees - is "part of a propaganda war to win hearts," said Robert Ness, who teaches linguistics at Dickinson College. "The way the battle will be fought is rhetorical first."

Many groups that advocate for immigrants support the phrases "undocumented immigrant" and "undocumented worker." Labor activist Nathan Newman recently raised the ire of conservatives with his use of "global economic refugee" in a blog.

"These are not small questions," said Frank Sharry, director of the National Immigration Forum, a pro-immigration advocacy group based in Washington. "The language, and who wins the framing of the language, likely will win the debate" on immigration legislation.

Sharry likes "undocumented immigrant." His list of preferred language does not stop there, however. For example, he rejects "amnesty" - which he says implies wrongdoing - in favor of "earned path to citizenship."

Critics say such phrases are political spin.

"It's an attempt to deny the illegality of the illegal alien," said Mark Krikorian, head of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank that supports tighter controls on immigration.

Krikorian sees nothing wrong with "illegal alien," the term federal agencies use. Yet even President Bush has used "undocumented worker" as he makes his case for an overhaul of immigration policy.

David Caulkett, of Broward County, Fla., designed his Web site, http://illegalaliens.us, to lampoon what he considers the absurd "undocumented" distinction.

"Those undocumented are actually highly documented with fraudulent documents that the government readily accepts," said Caulkett, who describes himself as being for "legal immigration."

Many immigrant groups take "illegal alien" as a double insult.

Illegal in that context, or when paired with the word immigrant, is "dehumanizing because it criminalizes the person rather than the actual act," the Latino journalists' group said in a statement.

"We're not against saying, 'people who cross the border illegally,' " Román said.

And alien has a strange, hostile, even "non-terrestrial" connotation and "is considered pejorative by most immigrants," the group said.

The Inquirer, like many news organizations, prefers "illegal immigrant," though other terms have been used on its pages. The word undocumented is not favored because many illegal immigrants have access to some state and federal documents.

At the Associated Press, "illegal immigrant" is also the preferred term, a spokesman for the news agency said.

Lexical controversies frequently erupt when highly partisan issues are being considered, experts said.

This dust-up, in the age of blue states and red states, is "another expression of the political and cultural polarization that the country finds itself in," said Roy Peter Clark, senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, in St. Petersburg, Fla., which trains journalists.

Clark suggests using "illegal immigrant" and "immigrants without legal status" as alternatives to more loaded phrases.

But in the end, he said, "there's going to be no perfect term."

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