The Backstory of the Vocabulary War

By Jerry Kammer on August 20, 2015

Part three of four.
Read Part 1: The Immigration Language Wars.
Read Part 2: A Linguistic Bridge over Troubled Waters.

Like many of the aspects of our immigration debate, the vocabulary war has an interesting backstory. It's the story of a long linguistic chain that started with the borderlands slang term mojados and continued with ilegales, illegal immigrants, undocumented immigrants, and unauthorized workers. The most recent addition is the contradictory and extremely politically correct "undocumented citizens". That awkward phrase has been invoked by the likes of Republican Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), who wants to "normalize the status of the 11 million undocumented citizens."

People who are citizens don't need Sen. Paul's help, of course. But the senator's terminology does illustrate how much has changed since 1995, when President Clinton talked tough in his State of the Union address. He vowed to "do more to speed the deportation of illegal aliens who are arrested for crimes, to better identify illegal aliens in the workplace." With his eye on the following year's election, he wanted to talk tough.

As Clinton's pledge indicates, "illegal aliens" was in common use at that time, especially among those who wanted to enforce immigration laws. Most news organizations had moved away from that term. For example, the Los Angeles Times story that quoted Clinton's plan to deport criminals said he "focused on illegal immigrants" — even though the term Clinton himself repeatedly used was "illegal aliens". The Times was responding, at least in part, to concerns that were later expressed by George Lakoff, the Berkely linguistics professor, Democratic language guru, and defender of illegal immigration. Lakoff said alien "suggests nonhuman beings invading from outer space ... intent on taking over our land and our way of life by gradually insinuating themselves among us."

Until recently "illegal aliens" made "illegal immigrants" seem to have euphemistic flavor. Indeed, it was a linguistic compromise. Under federal law, an immigrant is someone who is admitted for residence in the United States. So the compromise involved a contradiction. Technically, an immigrant can't have illegal immigration status any more than a citizen can be undocumented. And by classifying people not as aliens, but as immigrants, we adopt a more inclusive tone. We also invoke the warm feelings for immigrants and immigration that radiate from many of our family stories of ancestors who came to the United States.

One of the other charged terms in the immigration discussion — mojados — is now widely scorned as a slur but was long regarded as inoffensive and colorful borderlands slang. In the 1950s, when the influx of illegal border crossers from Mexico was becoming national news, they were often referred to as los mojados — literally "the wet ones". That label, of course, was a product of border geography. Many people swam — or in some places simply waded — across the Rio Grande to Texas where they harvested vast fields of cotton and melons and vegetables. Sometimes the name was expanded to espaldas mojadas —the famous "wetbacks". Ilegales also came into play, with the advantage of being instantly recognizable on both sides of the border.

"Wetbacks", a term that was both colorful and compact, had a long run:

  • In 1951, the President's Commission on Migratory Labor reported: "That the wetback traffic has severely depressed farm wages is unquestionable."

  • In 1952, the New York Times published a story headlined: "House Passes Bill to Curb Wetbacks". The story reported that the bill sought to "curb or shut off wholesale illegal entry of aliens into the United States."

  • In 1954, federal authorities announced "Operation Wetback", which resulted in the removal of more than a million people who were illegally in the United States.

A 1984 story in the New York Times illustrated the staying power of both mojados and "wetbacks". It reported that "mojados is slang for illegal aliens." When I reported from Mexico on immigration in the 1990s and early 2000s, I frequently heard references to someone who se fue de mojado — crossed the border illegally to work in el otro lado — the other side, the United States. As the exodus from El Salvador to El Norte gathered steam in the 1990s, Salvadorans took pride in the song "Tres Veces Mojado" (Wet Three Times). It was the story of a migrant who illegally crossed three borders — into Guatemala, Mexico, and finally the United States.

There have been complaints about these terms for years. They have intensified in recent years as the immigration debate in the United States became more emotionally charged. The derision of "wetbacks" as a slur intensifies as one moves farther from the border and closer to New York and Washington. "'Wetback' is as offensive to Latinos as the N-word is to African-Americans and F---- is to the gay community," claimed Raul Reyes, a third-generation Mexican-American. Reyes has a Harvard degree, sits on the USA Today board of contributors, and often serves as a Latino commentator on radio and television.

NBC's Chuck Todd affirmed the moral indignation in 2013 when he objected to a statement by Alaska Republican Rep. Don Young. In an interview with a radio station in Ketchikan, Young said, "My father had a ranch; we used to have 50-60 wetbacks to pick tomatoes." Young quickly apologized, saying, "There was no malice in my heart or intent to offend; it was a poor choice of words." But on NBC's "Meet the Press", Todd added his voice to the outrage as he asked, "The fact that that was in his vocabulary, does that make Congressman Young fit to serve?"

Next: Is It Really an "Invasion"?