A major turning point in news media’s own language came in the wake of the September 11 attacks, as editors for the first time looked closely at how their publications described immigrants. Until then, the Associated Press Stylebook—a language bible for newsrooms—didn’t have any entries related to unauthorized immigrants. But in 2003, reflecting government concerns about border security following 9/11, the AP determined it needed to come with up a specific term. According to AP Deputy Standards Editor David Minthorn, the organization underwent extensive discussions, which included “reporters specializing in immigration and ethnic issues who are versed in the positions of all groups,” as well as an overview of government and legal terminology. The AP settled on “illegal immigrant” as the “neutral” and preferred term, while noting that “illegal alien” and the shortened term of “illegal” should be avoided. Interestingly, that’s precisely the message Luntz suggested in 2005.
The AP’s decision locked in an industry standard for so-called neutral language on unauthorized immigration—and it focused on the person, not just the act. The Los Angeles Times’ style book, for instance, calls for “illegal immigrant” as “the preferred, neutral, unbiased term that will work in almost all uses,” as assistant managing editor Henry Furhmann recently explained to the paper’s ombudsman. As a consequence, that “unbiased” language dominates news coverage of big immigration battles. In 2010, as Congress debated the DREAM Act and immigration became a leading issue in midterm elections, four of the five largest-circulation newspapers published a combined 1,549 articles that referred to people as “illegal” or “alien” in the headline or at least once in the text of the story; they published just 363 articles that referred to “undocumented” or “unauthorized” immigrants. (The four papers, in order of 2011 circulation numbers, include USA Today, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post; we did not search the archives of the Wall Street Journal, which is the largest paper, because it does not make the full text of its archives available on the database we used.)
In recent years, there has been push back on the criminalizing framework from journalists of color. In 2006 the National Association of Hispanic Journalists launched a campaign pressuring media agencies to stop using the term “illegal” to describe unauthorized immigrants. It was a time of raucous protest, with millions of immigrants across the country marching against Sensenbrenner’s draconian House bill. (Notably, the bill’s title—the Border Protection, Anti-Terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act—perfectly captured the conflation of undocumented immigrants with terrorists that became common after 9/11.)
“Politicians and others were taking the rhetoric of the anti-immigrant groups, and using ‘illegal’ as a noun,” says Ivan Roman, NAHJ’s executive director. “We don’t like the term illegal alien and we prefer not to use illegal immigrant—we prefer undocumented immigrant. And we think the news media needs to think critically about the terminology they use.”
A more recent campaign, Drop the I-word, is being coordinated by Colorlines.com’s publisher, the Applied Research Center. The campaign, which asks news organizations to not use the term “illegal” when discussing unauthorized migrants, finds inspiration from Holocaust survivor Ellie Wiesel’s phrase “no person is illegal,” which he coined during the 1980s Central American sanctuary movement. (The British were the first to use “illegal” as a noun to refer to people, when describing Jews in the 1930s who entered Palestine without official permission).
“Getting rid of the i-word is about our society asserting the idea that migrants are human beings deserving of respect and basic human rights,” says Mónica Novoa, coordinator of the campaign. She says she has been disappointed with the number of otherwise sensitive journalists who continue to use the word, which she argues “points to how normalized the language has become.”
And as the language has normalized, the broader public dialogue has grown increasingly harsh—and dangerous.
Part of the shift can be seen in the way formerly moderate Republicans have begun navigating political waters using the Tea Party as their compass.
In 2007, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham was adamant in his support of reform, arguing that, “We’re not going to scapegoat people. We’re going to tell the bigots to shut up.” By last year, however, he’d moved to discussing an overhaul of the 14th Amendment to end birthright citizenship for U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants. Sen. John McCain has undergone a similar transformation: once a key proponent of reform, earlier this year he blamed wildfires in Arizona on undocumented immigrants, an absurd claim quickly refuted by the U.S. Forrest Service. Longtime hardliners like Rep. Steve King of Iowa, who has called immigration a “slow moving Holocaust” and compared immigrants to livestock, are now finding more friends in Congress.
The new batch of Tea Party members openly use threatening images of brown-skinned immigrants to rally their base—in just the way Luntz warned against as he crafted the language politicians now hurl at immigrants. Sharon Angle, in an infamous commercial from her 2010 campaign against Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, featured Latinos (“illegals”) sneaking along a border fence “putting our safety at risk” and labeled Reid as “the best friend an illegal alien ever had.”
Angle lost, due in large measure to the Latino vote. But her campaign waged an unexpectedly meaningful threat to the long-term senator and Democratic leader. More and more people seem to believe that, with “illegals putting our safety at risk,” drastic words (and actions) are needed.
In March, Kansas State Rep. Virgil Peck, during a debate about the use of gunmen in helicopters to kill wild hogs, suggested that such a tactic could also be a solution “to our illegal immigration problem.” His statement was followed by Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama, who made repeated calls for doing “anything short of shooting” undocumented immigrants.
In November 2008, that’s just what a group of Long Island, N.Y., teenagers did when they stabbed Marcello Lucero to death. Lucero, an undocumented immigrant from Ecuador, was the target of what the teens called “beaner hopping”—in which they roamed the streets searching for Latinos to attack. In the wake of the murder it was discovered that other immigrants had been beaten but not come forward due to fears about their immigration status. Another streak of violence targeting Latinos occurred in New York City’s Staten Island in 2010, which included 10 attacks within a six-month period.
As the situation in Long Island attests, taking an accurate stock of hate crimes is a difficult task, as many undocumented immigrants are hesitant to report crimes to authorities. Existing statistics do point to an increase in attacks on Latinos during much of the last decade: from 2003-2007 the FBI reported hate crimes against Latinos increased by 40 percent, and last month California released data showing anti-Latino crimes jumped by nearly 50 percent from the previous year.
For Novoa, these types of statistics highlight the urgency behind the call to stop using “illegal” to describe unauthorized immigrants. “We need to change the current debate. It’s hate-filled, racially charged, and inhumane—and it’s driving up violence.”
And all of this points to perhaps the greatest weakness in the Democratic response to Luntz’s message. When one side is framing immigrants as criminals and potential terrorists, with some “joking” about slaughtering them like hogs, the other side likely needs to do more than co-opt poll-tested talking points. There’s more at stake than votes. The Democratic strategy also holds a contradiction at its core: The more focus that is placed on the illegality of immigrants and the problems they cause, the less it makes sense to offer a path to legalization.
“All of that [polling] work is based on an assumption that this is a policy argument,” Sharry acknowledges. “This is looking more like a front in a culture war, in which a rabid, well organized part of the Republican Party wants to expel millions of brown people from this country.”
Gabriel Thompson is currently working on a biography of legendary community organizer Fred Ross. He is the author of “Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs (Most) Americans Won’t Do,” just released in paperback from Nation Books.
Research for this article was provided Colorlines.com’s Drop the I-Word campaign.