The Democrats' New Immigration Strategy: Euphemism

By Stanley Renshon and Stanley Renshon on June 14, 2010
Noun (from the Greek euphēmismos, from euphēmos auspicious, sounding good.)
1: the substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant.


recently reported that the Democrats have come up with a tough new immigration strategy. It consists of "talking like Republicans"!

In place of such terms as "an earned path to citizenship" or supporting efforts to allow "undocumented" immigrants to "come out of the shadows," the new strategy emphasizes calling illegal immigrants what they are, and to "require" that they "get right with the law."

The new strategy is, in essence, a poll-tested communication strategy, not a rethinking of policy. It is based on the assumption that soothing, but inaccurate words will obscure major policy choices hidden in the fine print of monstrous-sized congressional bills written in technical language that few legislators can understand or, like the health care bill, have even read. Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, a pro-immigrant-rights group that worked with Center for American Progress founder John Podesta on the messaging overhaul said, "We lost control of the message in the 2007 debate. We needed to do a much better job on communications."

Drew Westen, a political consultant who helped hone the message through dial testing, said the message starts with a pledge to secure the borders and crack down on employers. It then moves to this: "It is unacceptable to have 12 million people in our country who are outside the system. We must require illegal immigrants to register for legal status, pay their taxes, learn English and pass criminal background checks to remain in the country and work toward citizenship. Those who have a criminal record or refuse to register should be deported."

Sounds tough and is meant to, and that is precisely the point – its only point.

Behind the tough-sounding words are exactly the same old Democratic policies. "Get right with the law"? The eleven or twelve million immigrants who are in the country in violation of American immigration laws would have to register and reveal themselves in order to receive a change of status from illegal to legal. They would immediately receive the benefits of legality. Nothing new here.

"Pay their taxes"? All citizens and legal residents are required to do so. Nothing new here.

Back taxes? How would the government access what is owed to those who were paid in cash? Would illegal immigrants be eligible for supplemental transfer programs like the Making Work Pay tax credit or the Earned Income Tax Credit? Why not? And if so, the government will be hiring more new accountants than census workers.

"Pass criminal background checks"? To quote Bill Clinton: It depends what you mean. Will only those with felonies on their records be barred from having their immigration status adjusted or will certain classes of misdemeanors also be considered, and if so which ones? What of those who had been charged with a serious crime but have plea-bargained the offense down? Would absconders from deportation orders be forgiven? What of those who had repeatedly been deported and reentered the country? Would document fraud be forgiven?

"Learning English"? Would that be speaking, reading, writing, or all of them, and at what level of competence? There was a learning English requirement written into the last major amnesty legislation, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, that eventually, after legislative debate and further easing of the requirements during the administrative rule-writing process, ended up requiring only that newly legalized, formerly illegal, immigrants be in the process of learning English, whatever that came to mean in the myriad classes run by NGOs allied with the immigrant advocacy movement.

The new tough talk is unlikely to be persuasive because it attempts to finesse and mask the real point of Democratic Party policy, which is to legalize the eleven or twelve million immigrations now living here in violation of immigration law, ensure the continuation of current family preferences that reinforce and expand existing ethnic immigration streams, and ensure that high numbers of "temporary" workers also have a "pathway to citizenship," thus adding substantially to the over one million immigrants each year that the United States takes in.

Each of these issues, and how they are resolved, has enormous implications for the United States and its social, economical, cultural, and political life. They are, in their own ways, as important as understanding that under most versions of "comprehensive immigration reform," the benefits to illegal immigrants of having their status adjusted is immediate, and the promised benefits to Americans of strict workplace enforcement, better border control, and getting in "the back of the line" when they are already here and made legal are either not yet technically feasible (workplace enforcement) or a case of misrepresentation by misdirection (going to the back of the line when you've always received the benefits of cutting into line).

Deploying new euphemisms to defend old policies won't make either more palatable. It will simply add to the distrust that Americans increasing feel when they hear "leaders" cynically taking their gullibility for granted.