In the fierce debate over illegal immigration, the particular terms used by those who argue our porous borders are not a serious problem can tell us a lot.
There are somewhere between 8 million and 15 million citizens from Mexico and Latin America in the U.S. unlawfully. Those who want cheap labor or relatively unimpeded entry into the U.S. for even more people try to mask the almost inconceivable enormity of the problem through euphemism as well as calling their opponents names.
“Undocumented worker,” for example, is the politically correct synonym for “illegal alien.” It implies those who have crossed the border without the proper documentation have neither broken the law nor are of any different status than American citizens. But it is an inaccurate term. Not all those who come here illegally are working. And most never had, or even applied for, immigration documents.
In other words, there really are millions here illegally. They are not aliens from another planet, but aliens in the literal sense — simply not lawful residents of this country.
“Guest workers,” as well, is an inexact, euphemistic term. After all, invited company is rarely asked to wash their hosts’ dishes. “Imported laborer” or “contracted worker” would be more accurate. Far better than “guest worker,” such terms convey the commercial nature of the arrangement. Even more precise would be “imported low-wage laborer,” to take into account the critical issue of wages. Even the old, crude label bracero — “the arms” — better reflected the reality of low-paid, brutal labor than does “guest worker.”
Those who object to fortifying the border like to say that constructing a fence would be akin to putting up a “Berlin Wall.” The inaccurate image this conjures is enough to send shivers up our collective spines — as if we are heartless Cold War Stalinists with machine-gunners on turrets.
And when it comes to stigmatizing their opponents, those who object to strict border enforcement use the term “anti-immigrant” instead of “anti-illegal immigrant.” Most Americans do not object to the millions who come here lawfully. So those who see benefits in illegal immigration try to blur the line between illegal and legal. Also, note that “anti-immigrant” is preferable to “anti-immigration,” because the former personalizes the issue — as if their opponents are hostile to individuals rather than to the flawed policies that brought them here.
Indeed, at their worse, those who deny the serious problems of illegal immigration employ words like “nativist” to describe their opponents, thus characterizing them as xenophobes rather than people interested in upholding the law. “Nativist,” however, is an empty charge, since there are more illegal and legal immigrants here (some 30 million, or almost 10 percent of our present population) than at any time in U.S. history.
The even harsher word “racist” is also sometimes evoked in the debate. A purported “white America” secretly fears a “brown invasion.” But worry over losing control of our borders troubles Americans of all races, including millions of Hispanic-Americans. Most African-Americans and Asian-Americans oppose illegal immigration for a variety of reasons — from the driving down of wages of lower-paid American workers to the allowing of Mexican citizens to cut ahead in the immigration line.
No doubt were there 1,000 Chinese illegal aliens arriving in boats each day on the coast of California, many of our present protesters would be calling on the Coast Guard to protect our shores.
The most peculiar term used by some Hispanic extremists is “La Raza,” meaning “The Race.” It alone in the debate really is linguistically a racialist term that identifies a particular group not by its origin, language or religion but by its supposed racial exceptionalism. That there is still an organization called the National Council of La Raza is surreal in our pluralistic society.
What explains these distortions in language? Simple — politics. Those who tolerate de facto uncontrolled borders employ fuzzy adjectives such as “guest” and “undocumented” that do not accurately describe the millions of aliens illegally in the United States, a fact opposed by the vast majority of Americans.
By the same token, these who raise legitimate concerns are reduced to “nativists” or “racists” to preclude a fair hearing of their often persuasive arguments. Change the language, and political change may follow.
It is time that open-border advocates use honest vocabulary and discuss the problem as a legal issue apart from race. When illegal alien protesters wave the flag of Mexico, or dictate proper policy to their hosts, the debate is Orwellian enough without distorting the English language as well.
Victor Davis Hanson is a nationally syndicated columnist and classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and author, most recently, of “A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War.”