A Linguistic Bridge over Troubled Waters

By Jerry Kammer on August 19, 2015

Part two of four.
Read Part 1: The Immigration Language Wars.




In 2013, when the Associated Press prohibited the use of "illegal immigrant" to describe someone who was in the United States illegally and the New York Times gave its blessing to the use of less controversial terms, critics complained that they caved in to pressure and surrendered to political correctness. I was waiting for someone to wisecrack that the two powerhouses of American journalism had made the difficult decision to rise above their principles.

Not long ago, I could have been the source of that wisecrack. It seemed to me that Phil Corbett had it right with his 2012 observation that terms like the undocumented often "seem deliberately chosen to try to soften or minimize the lack of legal status."

I still think that makes good sense. I also think that by explicitly acknowledging the violation of law "illegal immigrant" recognizes a civic reality that underlies our national immigration debate. Ironically, that reality was concisely described by former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda, an ardent defender of illegal immigrants who is also an astute observer of the American character. Noting the visceral connection that many Americans have to playing by the rules, Castaneda said large-scale illegal immigration "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."

Nevertheless, I think that if the use of some other term will help create the space for respectful dialogue by removing an irritant that has grown more powerful in recent years, it is good to suspend use of "illegal immigrant" and find an alternative. It can add a grace note to a discussion, helping to avoid acrimony. I have made a point of using "unauthorized" or even "undocumented" when speaking to immigrant advocacy groups. It is a gesture that recognizes that if we are to work our way out of our emotionally charged dead end on immigration policy we need to create a generous spirit of mutual respect.

This is a linguistic retreat for the sake of a compromise. It represents the reasoning that has led one hardline immigration website to accuse me of undermining "the patriotic struggle" against illegal immigration. But I think the most patriotic thing I can do is to work for a discussion that can help find a solution. I understand the frustration and anger of thoughtful conservatives who are acutely aware of the tenuous character of American cohesion that Castaneda pointed out. They believe our tolerance of illegal immigration shows a careless disregard of the risks it brings. I respect their concerns and I share them to a great degree. But I think they contribute little to the public discussion when they demand, "What part of 'illegal' don't you understand?"

No one invoked the spirit I admire more gracefully than Russell Kirk, the great conservative thinker, when he said "Conservatism never is more admirable than when it accepts changes that it disapproves, with good grace, for the sake of a general conciliation."

That is a prescription for the civic grace that we need. It could help build a bridge over our troubled immigration waters.

Next:The Backstory of the Vocabulary War