Judy Woodruff's Unfortunate Use of the "Anti-Immigrant" Label

By Jerry Kammer on February 24, 2014

I wish that journalists who are linguistically sensitive enough to speak of "undocumented immigrants" rather than "illegal immigrants" would be equally sensitive to the concerns of people who do not want to be denigrated as "anti-immigrant" because they want to limit immigration.

That concern came to mind recently as I watched Judy Woodruff's introduction of a PBS NewsHour story on the success of a Swiss referendum aimed at scaling back the immigration that has brought dramatic change to the country's demographics. Immigrants now represent about 27 percent of Switzerland's population.

Said Woodruff: "A referendum in Switzerland to limit immigration is threatening the country's economic ties with Europe, and it is raising questions about the rise of anti-immigrant groups across the continent. By a razor-thin margin, just over 50 percent, Swiss voters on Sunday supported imposing quotas on how many foreigners are allowed to enter the country."

As Woodruff spoke, a graphic showed a French-language poster in favor of the referendum that read "Stop Mass Immigration." It did not say "Stop Immigration" or "Immigrants Out".

The referendum was an attempt to regulate a phenomenon that has grown rapidly in recent years. To call it "anti-immigrant", it seems to me, tilts and confuses the discussion. It is tendentious. It is inaccurate.

To be sure, some of the groups in Switzerland and other countries across Europe where immigration is a political flashpoint are nasty people, spurred on by bigotry and xenophobic hostility. There was some justification for Woodruff's reference to the "anti-immigrant factions ... rising across Europe — from France to Italy, Spain, Britain, and the Netherlands."

But the debate is not primarily between warring factions of the nasty and the nice.

In reality, on the one hand, you have governmental, business, and cultural elites who are sufficiently cosmopolitan to see themselves as citizens of the world and who are prospering from the growth in GDP that the mass immigration of recent years has stimulated.

On the other hand, you have ordinary people who, like a majority of the Swiss voters, were not persuaded by the argument that was neatly summarized in a campaign poster that urged a vote against the referendum. The poster, which showed a tree falling under the blows of an axe, asked, "Destroy our prosperity?" It was visible in the story that Woodruff introduced.

Passage of the referendum suggests that many people see the prosperity of immigration-fueled growth being concentrated in the hands of the few, while the costs are being spread across society. It is the old game of privatizing profit and socializing loss.

Woodruff is a prestigious journalist. She is highly respected, a standard-setter in her profession. That's why I regret that she has added credibility to those who conflate the desire to regulate immigration with hostility toward immigrants.

Would Judy Woodruff describe family planning as anti-child? If not, I don't think she should say that a nation's attempt to manage its demographic future by regulating a powerful and rapidly growing rate of immigration is anti-immigrant. Many of us think that label is a damaging distortion. It hurts us personally.

More important, it hurts the debate.