Fuzzy Words Foul Up the Immigration Policy Debate

By David North on October 7, 2009

The use of deliberately fuzzy terms -– "undocumented worker" is my favorite -– continues to cloud the immigration policy debate, always to the detriment of the restrictionists' position.

A good example popped up in yesterday's New York Times; the headline was "Ideas for Immigrant Detention Include Converting Hotels and Building Models". In the article the term "noncitizens" was used to define the inmates.

What we have here is a perhaps unconscious effort to expand the definition of the population being acted upon, thus increasing opposition to the act in question, the jailing of those illegal aliens the government is trying to deport. Yes, those in the facilities (i.e., jails) are immigrants but they are a very small subset of immigrants, and a tiny fraction even of the population of illegal aliens.

Yes, the detainees are non-citizens, but so is Sir Nigel Elton Sheinwald, KCMG, the British Ambassador to the U.S., and so are all those tourists flying into New York today from Europe.

A similar example of the fuzz-to-expand-the-population-of-concern terminology can be found in the discussion of inheritance taxes. The opponents now call it a "death tax", knowing that death is universal and feared by all. The term is, of course, misleading, as the inheritance tax only operates in the case of one or two percent of American deaths. The tax might better be called the "large estates tax" as it applies only to million-dollar-plus inheritances.

A more clearly deliberate attempt to fuzz the immigration debate is the use of the iron hand of political correctness to describe people illegally in the U.S. in progressively softer, more indistinct, and often longer terms. Let's trace what happened over the years.

Back in Eisenhower's first term, when his West Point buddy Gen. Joseph Swing was the INS Commissioner, the official term was simply "wet" or "wetback," relating to the fact that most of the illegals had swum or waded the Rio Grande. The process by which many of the illegals of the day were converted to legal, nonimmigrant farmworkers, in the exploitative Bracero Program, was called "drying out the wets."

I was doing research at the U.S.-Mexico border in 1969 and my sense at the time -- perhaps I was obtuse -- was that the term was used pretty widely and without malice. One Chicano activist I knew at the time referred to himself as a "wetbottom" because had been brought to the U.S. illegally while in diapers; he later became a citizen. Another, the distinguished Notre Dame-based immigration scholar, Julian Samora, called his pioneering 1971 report on illegal migration "Los Mojados: The Wetback Story", "mojados" being Spanish for "the moistened ones."

Subsequently "wetback" became regarded as derogatory and it was dropped in favor of "illegal alien."

Some Chicano activists regarded both ends of even that term, "illegal" and "alien," as unflattering and pushed toward "illegal immigrant," which is the term usually used by the New York Times.

Still another Chicano activist, this time the Carter Administration's INS Commissioner, Leonel Castillo, took it one step further. Former INS Special Agent Bill West describes a policy directive from Castillo instructing all INS staff not to refer to illegal aliens with that term, but to call them "undocumented aliens," or better, "undocumented workers."

That last term could suggest a native-born teenager seeking a job without having either a Social Security card or a driver's license.

The terminology used in any debate sets the tone of that debate, and the terminological trends in this discussion have shifted over the years to those preferred by the open-borders lobbyists.