A Good Story Goes Bad with a Subtle Turn of Phrase

By Jerry Kammer on June 13, 2017

A story on Monday's "Here and Now" program, which is presented on many public radio stations, provides an example of how subtle manipulations of language can color the discussion of immigration policy.

The story, reported by Liz Jones of KUOW in Seattle, concerned an effort by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to establish relations and build trust with community-based organizations, including advocates of illegal immigrants. One advocate told Jones that he appreciated the opportunity to meet with ICE because, "It fights this notion of a bunch of thugs."

Jones' reporting was skillful and even-handed until her last sentence, which tilted abruptly away from those journalistic values. Said Jones, "As for trust, that will be tricky between a group that wants to protect immigrants and an agency built up to deport them."

Here Jones demonstrated a tactic, widely used among defenders of illegal immigrants, of eliminating the distinction between legality and illegality. That distinction, of course, is indispensable in a nation where respect for the rule of law is a fundamental value. Advocates of illegal immigrants often ignore it because they seek to assert the primacy of their belief that it is wrong to enforce laws that make it a crime to enter the United States without authorization. They prefer to speak of those who are "undocumented", as if that were a trifling circumstance that provokes alarm only among the mean-spirited and intolerant.

Jones' observation that ICE was "built up to deport" immigrants was disingenuous. One of the agency's two main divisions, Enforcement and Removal Operations, does indeed have the mission of detaining and deporting illegal immigrants. (Agents in ICE's other main division, Homeland Security Investigations, investigate, among other things, smuggling, drug trafficking, criminal gang activity, fraud, cybercrime, and intellectual property theft). But the more important point here is that Jones, by failing to make a fundamental distinction, blurred the line between legality and illegality. That is the work of advocates, not journalists. If she were writing a story about arrests on Wall Street, would she report that the FBI has been "built up" to arrest bankers? Of course not.

Monday's story called to mind the linguistic shading practiced by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which has long resisted efforts both to enact and to enforce laws that do not open our borders to all those who want to come.

The ACLU does some admirable work in demanding due process of law for everyone. Who can fault its mission of "protecting the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution and the laws of the United States"? The problem for those who believe open-borders immigration would be an invitation to chaos comes with the ACLU's relentless dedication to obliterating legal boundaries established by the Constitution and other laws. As ACLU attorneys argued in one case, their aim is not only to challenge laws, but also to "promote the equal treatment and civic integration of immigrants."

The omission of a qualifying adjective there provides an example of why some opponents of illegal immigration prefer to call those who are in the country "illegal aliens" rather than "illegal immigrants". Loosely defined categories can be used to confuse the issue, as both "Here and Now" and the ACLU have demonstrated.

(This post has been edited for clarity since its original publication.)