The term ‘illegal immigrant’ is a question of feelings, not semantics

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The debate over terms like illegals, illegal aliens, illegal immigrants and undocumented immigrants has gone viral and lost touch with the reality of language and human beings.

illegal immigrant

Immigration laws started with the Page Act, in 1875. (shutterstock photo)

“AP memo clarifies (sic) how to use the phrase ‘illegal immigrant’” is the title of an article by Mallary Jean Tenore in Poynter (22 Oct, 2012) where she reproduces statements by Paul Coldford and Tom Kent both from the Associated Press (AP). True to their craft and trade, they “clarify” nothing and simply beat around the bush, with some sound and fury (not much, really), signifying nothing.

The attempt to clarify the terminology comes in the wake of challenges by José Antonio Vargas (a Filipino) in The New York Times about an illegal immigrant. The Associated Press did not decide motu proprio to reflect on this matter, as expected.

Of course, Messrs. Coldford and Poynter very pointedly point out that “The Stylebook now says “illegal immigrant” can also be used to describe a person who “resides in a country in criminal or civil violation of immigration law.” Additionally, it advises against using terms like “illegals” and “illegal alien.” Neither of them seem to perceive that the whole issue is not about words but what hides behind the terminology. They hide behind the inclusion of “resides in a country” (any country) in the definition, thinking that two in distress makes sorrow less.

illegal immigrant

The debate over terms like illegals, illegal aliens, illegal immigrants and undocumented immigrants has gone viral. (Photo/ freedomwriter)

The press’ use of illegal immigrant goes back, way back

The expression “illegal immigration” is not a new one: it was first recorded in 1887. Illegal immigrant was first used in print in 1892, at a time when anyone from Europe with some gold in his pocket to pay the famous, an inappropriate, head tax, could enter the country.

The whole history of immigration legislation in the United States is a path paved with racism, xenophobic attitudes, prejudices, bigotry and downright hate that runs counter to what can be read at the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free… the homeless…”, in a poem by Emma Lazarus, written in 1883, and posted finally in a plaque in 1903. It was thought that the poem would be very meaningful to immigrants coming to the shores of America.

illegal immigrant

A sign that reads “Illegal Aliens here” with a handrwiting stating “Not for long”. (Photo/ freedomistheanswer)

Immigration laws started with the Page Act, in 1875, which announced the very first of many more to come. Here are some immigration laws:

1790    Naturalization limited to free white persons of good moral character, leaving out slaves, Indians, free Blacks and Orientals.

1875    The Page Act, mainly against Chinese laborers.

1882    Chinese Exclusion Act. (Chinese out.)

1892    Ellis Island (the least said about this, the better.) Women travelling alone had to be met by a man, or else deported on the spot.

1902    Chinese Exclusion Act renewed indefinitely.

1922    Japanese made illegible for citizenship.

1943    Chinese Laws were repealed and set a quota of 105 per year.

2001    U.S. Patriot Act (better read it.)

America has been for over 200 years a country of lawful, unlawful, paperless, naturalized, permanent residents, with student visas, with tourist visas… visitors, immigrants, all aliens, foreigners, like Wernher von Broun, a Nazi scientist, who was granted U.S. citizenship and honored, in spite of his having used concentration-camp forced labor in his native Germany. I do not recall his being termed “alien,” “or alien immigrant”…at the time. The Government granted him legal status right away, instead of taking him before a judge.

illegal immigrant

Jose anotnio Vargas on Time magazine cover. (Time)

The core of the matter is not whether The New York Times of the Associated Press uses terms like “illegal immigrant” but rather the idea behind it that supports all those who are xenophobic and deem all aliens a bad lot. Worse still, “illegal immigrant” right now refers to Hispanics more than to anybody else, especially Mexicans, who make up most of the Latino population.

The huge problem of foreigners in this country, and the so-called white supremacy, has to be solved somehow. Perhaps President Obama is the only one capable of removing this beam in the eye of the U.S.

In his article “My life as an undocumented immigrant” (The New York Times, June 22, 2011), Mr. José Antonio Vargas says at one point about his nightmare as an undocumented alien, illegal immigrant: “I’m done running. I’m exhausted. I don’t want that life anymore.”

Go, tell it on the mountain,
Over the hills and everywhere
Go, tell it on the mountain,

That Jesus Christ is born.

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