The Devil's Immigration Glossary


The immigration debate has given rise to a host of new words and phrases: "self-deportation," "operational control," "Dreamers." The latest: "legal status," the enigmatic term Republicans have recently used to describe their approach to dealing with the population of unauthorized immigrants living in the country. (As opposed to "illegal status"?) Given its capacity to persuade and express power, all political language is fraught, of course. But this is especially true of the immigration debate, where fiercely held views have given rise to a tendentious lexicon rife with euphemism and loaded language. This is perhaps no surprise given the (dreamy) ideology behind the idea of citizenship, the lore of American self-improvement, and the conflation of immigration with national security since September 11. But it's made the immigration debate a bit impenetrable for the casual observer. Here's your guide to decoding it all.

Alien: Immigrant-rights advocates have long objected to this term, and it's not hard to see why. "Alien" might conjure up images of flying saucers and Calista Flockhart-thin green men, but at its core it stresses foreignness, making it harder to empathize with immigrants—to see them as people with needs, desires, and aspirations like your own. Of course, if your agenda is to deny them care when they are sick or stop their kids from going to school, that's a pretty good tack to take. Thankfully, though, "alien" seems to have fallen out of common use. 

Illegal: Conservatives defend the use of "illegal" as a noun—as in "he's an illegal"—by saying those who are here without authorization have broken the law. But we don't typically define people by the crimes they commit; that's a distinction we reserve for only the most serious criminals—namely, murderers and thieves. With unauthorized immigrants, conservatives don't even bother naming the crime they committed: They embody all criminality itself. Because of this, major news outlets—including the Associated Press, which sets the standard for many local and regional papers—have revised their stylebooks to advise against using "illegal alien" or "illegal immigrant.” Just “illegal” has long been considered a slur.

Undocumented: Liberals aren't off the hook for linguistic sophistry, either. While "undocumented" is less scary than "illegal"—at worst, it makes you think of an exotic jellyfish awaiting scientific discovery—it's technically incorrect. The majority of those who are in the country without authorization have overstayed visas, so they're technically "documented," just not playing by the rules. The most accurate term would probably be “unauthorized resident” given that even those who are documented haven’t technically gone through the process to become full-fledged immigrants.

Comprehensive: When your homeowners coverage is "comprehensive," it means everything is covered—your house in the event of flooding or a meteor hit as well as your priceless collection of porcelain dolls. But when it comes to immigration, "comprehensive reform" is code for granting citizenship to unauthorized residents, which is why you typically only hear Democrats use it. It's not a total smokescreen, though. Immigrant-rights advocates have adopted the legislative strategy of throwing popular provisions like increasing the levels of high-skilled immigration in the same bag as the more controversial legalization program. But at heart, "CIR," as it's often abbreviated, has come to signal the content of the bill rather than the legislative strategy. 

DREAM Act: As we know from the "PATRIOT Act," legislative titles have provided some of the most innovative of newspeak neologisms. Because the immigration debate is steeped in the mythology of American aspiration, you get the "DREAM Act” (the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act), an acronym that’s meant to invoke the "American dream." First introduced in 2001, the bill would grant citizenship to the children of unauthorized immigrants brought to the U.S. as minors, and those whom the legislation would benefit have come to be called "Dreamers." It's a pretty brilliant use of political framing, which is why even most Republicans have come to support some version of it. Even if you're not inclined to sympathize with kids who were brought to the U.S. as children and are currently locked out of receiving financial aid, who wants to be an American Dream-killer? 

SAFE Act: Immigrants commit fewer crimes than the native population, but since September 11, we've seen immigration as a national security issue, making every person seeking economic opportunity within our borders a potential terrorist. Last year, Republicans in the House considered the "SAFE Act,” which would basically wrest the law-enforcement reins from the federal government and give law-and-order nincompoops like Maricopa, Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio—who likes to humiliate his captives by making them wear pink underwear and bake in the sun—more leeway to lay siege to immigrant communities (it hasn’t made it out of committee and would be dead on arrival with Dems, but it’s still on the table). The legislation would also remove DHS's discretion in choosing who to detain. Whether you lit a school on fire or failed to signal before merging, you're going to jail. "Safety first!” 

Amnesty: Despite the fact that Republicans' Lord and Savior Ronald Reagan granted amnesty to approximately 4 million unauthorized immigrants in the 1980s, it's since become the most powerful watchword for those who see the unauthorized as vermin sucking on the rich blood of America. Playing into the law-and-order frame, Republicans use it histrionically whenever someone attempts to give the current batch of unauthorized immigrants any rights. For the abominable administrative crime of overstaying a visa or crossing the border without authorization, there needs to be some retribution, which is why those who support immigrant rights do their best to avoid being accused of giving away citizenship for free. Instead, they use ...

Path to Citizenship: The term was invented to provide political cover for supporters of immigrant rights. Despite the fact that all most of us did to become citizens was plop out of our mothers, we insist that, for others, it is a privilege that must be earned. You have to prove not only that you're good for the economy, but that you can beat most Americans in a test of civic knowledge. The mighty quest that ends with getting a green card is called the "path to citizenship." But for the rest of us citizenship was an accidental destination, not a journey. 

No Special Path: In the current debate—one that's changed little since George W. Bush's ill-fated attempt to reform the system—Republicans have objected to the unauthorized getting citizenship on the grounds that they have broken the law and should not be rewarded for this criminality. To highlight what they see as a grave assault on justice, they make sure to say they oppose a "special path" to citizenship that does not include hefty fines, years of waiting, and declaring yourself a criminal. It's a bit like "special rights," which Republicans use to refer to non-discrimination protections for gays, lesbians, and transgender people—making it sound more like a corporate perk than something granted by the Constitution.

Legal Status: Realizing it's impractical to try to deport 12 million people—you don't say!— some Republicans have come around to the idea of  accepting that they'll be staying. But lest they invoke the ire of the Tea Party amnesty police, they can't come out and say it. Instead, Republicans like House Speaker John Boehner now say they support granting "legal status." The term is intentionally vague. It means those living here without authorization will be able to live and work in the U.S. without fear of being deported, but it's not yet clear whether they will receive citizenship—the real flashpoint of the debate—and if so, how. One proposal that could bring Democrats and Republicans together would be to merge them into existing immigration channels, which would be widened so people can actually get through over time. To make it sound even tougher, some Republicans have begun calling this … 

Probation: Those conservatives who actually want life for immigrants to be tolerable are in the unenviable position of having to appease their more radical counterparts and constituents. How to do this? By making the process of applying for citizenship sound like a punishment. Hence "probation," which Tea Party darling Paul Ryan recently used to describe the period after which unauthorized residents are granted “legal status” but before they are eligible to apply for a green card. If "probation" doesn't do the trick, Republicans might try “purgatory.”

Secure the Border: One of the Obama administration's greatest political bungles has been to ramp up enforcement—during his tenure, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has deported nearly 4 million people, and we now spend more on immigration enforcement than any other law-enforcement efforts combined—so the president can lay claim to "securing the border." The problem is, all the enforcement in the world doesn't make anti-immigration folks any happier to pass reforms. Plus, there's no clear definition of what "secure" means. DHS has set some reasonable benchmarks, like having a strong law-enforcement presence in areas of high traffic and a lighter presence in others, and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano has said that, by those standards, the border is “secure.” But for those who oppose doing anything but throwing money at law-enforcement contractors, a secure border is one that lets not a single person or dime bag of drugs across. Conservative Republicans have made granting legal rights to immigrants contingent on achieving this. Which, when you think of it, is sort of like requiring a local police force to ensure that not a single crime is committed before letting people who've served their sentence out of prison.

Self-deportation: First used in an article by People magazine in 1984—in reference to Roman Polanski, who evaded his conviction for sexual assault by fleeing the country—the term gained wide currency during Mitt Romney's presidential run. The former Massachusetts governor advocated a policy of “self-deportation” to deal with the problem of illegal immigration. For the casual observer it has a weird ring—like "arrest," isn't deportation something someone does to you? But it's a keyword for a draconian idea: Instead of detaining and deporting 12 million people, let's make life so miserable for them and their families that the country they fled looks better than the "land of opportunity"! 

Broken: Of all the clichés of the immigration debate, saying the immigration system is "broken" is perhaps the most overused by left and right alike. The thing is, our immigration system works exactly as it was designed—30 years ago. As opposed to most other countries that have set up standing commissions that take economic conditions into account when setting and adjusting immigration levels every year, we insist on having Congress overhaul the whole thing each time a change is needed. Most of our current troubles stem from the fact that we've allotted 5,000—no, that's not a typo—visas for low-skilled workers every year. "Outdated" is more accurate, though "broken" admittedly seems like a pretty good candidate for describing democratic institutions in which majority support and the approval of more than 70 percent of the public isn't enough to get laws passed.

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