Justice Sotomayor's Vocabulary of Immigration

By Jerry Kammer on April 11, 2016

In 2009, when Associate Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote her first opinion as a member of the high court, she used the term "undocumented immigrant" to refer to persons who are in the United States illegally. It is believed to have been the first such usage in the history of the court, where the term "illegal immigrant" had previously been used.

In an interview for last week's NPR program Latino USA, Justice Sotomayor explained her decision. She told host Maria Hinojosa:

"Illegal immigrant" has a sense, I think, in people's minds, that immigrants are all criminals and criminals in a negative sense of drug addicts, thieves, and murderers. And I felt that it was time to change the conversation from the public perception of undocumented aliens as being that kind of criminal. When you litter, you break the law, when you cross the street on a red light, you break the law. When you get a speeding ticket, you break the law. There are countless ways in which people break the law and there are gradations of how serious those violations are. I thought that it was time to be talking about what kind of violation it was.

Justice Sotomayor's comments show how connotations of words and ethnic sensibilities play a role in our fraught national immigration debate. Claiming that illegal immigrant carries harsh connotations of extreme criminality, she is responding, I think, to the fact that for many Latinos, the term a very personal issue because it refers to a population that is so large and so predominantly Latino.

America's Voice, the organization of immigration activists, reported in 2013 that a poll it had commissioned along with the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials showed that among "undocumented immigrants ... 85 percent have U.S. citizen family members."

We have a case of human nature in competition with linguistic precision. Nobody likes to think of an aunt or cousin or other relative as a criminal. So there is a natural tendency to look for a term that identifies them as compassionately as possible. Euphemism is a means of softening the edges of unpleasant circumstance.

The problem, of course, is that what one side of the debate sees as a gesture of kindness and compassion seems to the other side to be a tactic of distortion and evasion. One is advancing inclusiveness. The other insists on identifying the illegality they find so harmful.

Justice Sotomayor is a prominent spokesperson for the first view. I found one of the most perceptive presentations of the second view in an unlikely place: the work of former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda, an expert on Mexican immigration to the United States. Castaneda has written that:

"The undocumented or illegal nature of much of the flow runs counter to the legalistic nature of a society that has little else to hold it together beyond the belief in and devotion to the rule of law." Castaneda went on to defend his countrymen as a response to the needs of the U.S. economy, but acknowledged that "the very idea of countenancing an ongoing, widespread and flagrant violation of legality contradicts the myths and needs of American ideology."

Tomorrow's blog will look at another part of Justice Sotomayor's exchange with Maria Hinojosa.