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  • Erica Bryant

Immigration: The Language We Use is Important

No Person Is Illegal—the Language We Use for Immigration Matters

Erica Bryant Apr 04, 2023

Far too often in political discourse and media accounts, human beings seeking food, shelter, and safety are described as “natural disasters.” Dehumanizing metaphors applied in reference to human beings, like “flood” and “surge,” unfairly paint migrants as dangerous, uncontrollable, and destructive. As the United States remakes its policies for asylum seekers, it’s important that the media be careful to use neutral, accurate terms. Further, meaningful coverage of immigration should elevate the voices of actual immigrants and expand its scope beyond the United States-Mexico border. In May, the United States can expect an increase in the numbers of people trying to cross its southern border, following the end of Title 42. This misused public health law provision was exploited to stop people from exercising their right to seek asylum. How these migrating people are described and seen will impact how they are treated. Numerous researchers have found that using negative metaphors to describe immigrants shapes public opinion and robs immigrants of their individuality, which could make them seem less deserving of assistance and public sympathy. In one study of the representation of immigrant children in the mainstream media, researchers found that using the word “flood” to represent children who cross the border “dehumanizes them and discursively justifies their inhumane treatment.… In this way, these children became a chaotic, overwhelming, and uncontrollable force that must be stopped.” There is a long history of derogatory language being used to portray immigrants as dangerous and undesirable, thereby justifying their mistreatment and exclusion. In the 1800s and early 1900s, people who opposed immigration compared Chinese, Irish, and Italian immigrants to diseases and animals. An appalling lack of progress was seen in the late 2010s when then-President Trump referred to Mexican immigrants in similarly degrading terms. It is unsurprising that politicians who want to limit immigration and push anti-immigrant legislation persist in using harmful terms like “illegal alien” to erase their humanity. Some media outlets and government bodies have made progress toward using more accurate language regarding immigration. The Associated Press Stylebook has long discouraged the use of the word “illegal” to describe a person, because only an action can be illegal. AP’s Vice President for Standards John Daniszewski has called for people to be as neutral as possible when describing events on the United States border, avoiding negative rhetoric. “Avoid emotive words like onslaught, tidal wave, flood, inundation, surge, invasion, army, march, sneak and stealth,” he wrote. An antidote to dehumanizing language is to elevate the voices of immigrants themselves. People who are seeking a nuanced view of immigration in the 21st century should look beyond sensationalized coverage at the border, seeking out instead accounts by people who are personally impacted by United States immigration policy. It also pays to read and support in-depth reporting about the forces that are driving people to leave their homes. The story of record numbers of people crossing into the United States does not begin at the southern border. In many cases, United States policy has played a role in creating the dangerous conditions that people are fleeing. It matters how the story of immigration gets told. Accurate descriptions and coverage that respect the humanity of migrating people can help pave the way for more just immigration policies.

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