Justice Sotomayor's Vocabulary of Immigration, Part 2

By Jerry Kammer on April 12, 2016

Yesterday's blog post about the vocabulary of the immigration debate took note of a discussion on last week's Latino USA program in which Associate Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor suggested that the term illegal immigrant was excessively harsh because it associated those who violate immigration law with "drug addicts, thieves, and murderers".

Today's post takes a look at the response of host Maria Hinojosa, an immigrant from Mexico whose reporting on the national debate makes clear her sympathy for those she identifies as the undocumented. Following Justice Sotomayor's observation that those who litter or cross the street against a red light are also breaking the law, Hinojosa said: "Essentially, if everybody has broken the law at some point in their life, then we would be an illegal pedestrian; we'd be an illegal driver."

Here is the point that Hinojosa missed in her reflection on the vocabulary of the immigration debate: Our language has produced the words litterer, litterbug, and jaywalker to describe those who commit the offenses she describes. We have not come up with a single word that in a straightforward, non-prejudicial way describes those who enter the United States without following the rules with which our country seeks to control its border and regulate the flow of outsiders into our nation.

Wetback is now rightfully condemned as a slur, even though it wasn't regarded that way for decades in Mexican and U.S. borderlands. When I was a reporter in Mexico, I often heard that someone who had gone to the United States "se fue de mojado" — went as a wetback. The term "illegals", now scorned in polite U.S. circles, continues in wide circulation south of the border.

If you want to see how widely ilegales is used in Mexico to describe a broad category of people on the wrong side of the law, including migrants, taxi drivers, and street-corner sales people, just search for ilegales at eluniversal.com, the website of a highly respected Mexican newspaper.

And so we struggle for terms that convey an unpleasant circumstance without giving unnecessary offense. Yesterday's blog looked at Justice Sotomayor's problem with "illegal immigrant". She seemed to regard "undocumented immigrant" as preferable. But that term has a problem as people in the United States illegally tend to have multiple sets of fraudulent documents, compounding the illegality of their violation of our immigration law.

As someone fascinated by the complexities of both language and immigration, I think the debate over "illegal immigrant" is inevitable. But I've also come to see it as a distraction from the far more important discussion of immigration policy, of what we do about this problem that we struggle to name. I have come to think that if the use of a term other than illegal immigrant will help create the space for respectful dialogue by removing an irritant that has grown more powerful in recent years, it is worthwhile to suspend use of "illegal immigrant" and find an alternative. It can add a grace note to a discussion, helping to avoid acrimony. That is why I think "unauthorized" makes good sense.

I think we can take a lesson from "La Bamba", the Mexican folk song, translated into American rock music by Richie Valens, a Mexican-American who was born 75 years ago in Pocoima, Calif. It tells us that in order to get to heaven, we need una poca de gracia — a little grace. I think that precious commodity can also be useful our national discussion of immigration and immigration policy. So while I think the term "illegal immigrant" is accurate and precise, I often use the term "unauthorized immigrant" when I am speaking with those who may see it as a sign of respect. Then I try to move on to the really hard part, reforming our national immigration policy.