Migrant, Refugee or Infiltrator? How Our Language Affects Legislation

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A refugee holds a flyer reading 'Equality, Fraternity, Liberty? Open the Borders' at a train station in Vintimiglia, Italy, June 20, 2015.Credit: Reuters

News organizations around the world have come under fire from consumers for describing the Syrians, Iraqis, Afghanis and others arriving in Europe as "migrants," rather than "refugees" or "asylum seekers." In Israel, debate has raged over whether or not to designate Africans who have made their way across the border with Egypt as "infiltrators." Each designation carries a very different and equally potent connotation. What's more, the words used by the public and press to describe immigration often correlate with legislative policy.

Take for example the United States. Throughout the 1990s, the American public tended to use the word "illegal" when referring to immigrants without documentation. According to a paper published by Pew Research Center, "In 1996, four terms that included 'illegal'— 'illegal alien,' 'illegal immigrant,' 'illegal worker' and 'illegal migrant'—accounted for 82% of the language. In 2002, that dropped to about three-quarters. In 2007 it was down to 60% and in 2013, the decline continued as those terms were used a combined 57% of the time."

Linguistic reality began to change as left-leaning nonprofits improved in coordination. Organizations like the National Council for La Raza, PICO, and FWD.us began to coalesce around united arguments. "Undocumented immigrant" became the new vogue.

According to Jose Antonio Vargas, a prominent Washington Post journalist and immigration activist, “describing an immigrant as illegal is legally inaccurate. Being in the U.S. without proper documents is a civil offense, not a criminal one Think of it this way: In what other contexts do we call someone illegal? If someone is driving a car at 14, we say 'underage driver,' not 'illegal driver.' If someone is driving under the influence, we call them a 'drunk driver,' not an 'illegal driver.'”

Some of the most widely circulated U.S. news outlets, from The Los Angeles Times to the Huffington Post and Associated Press, have formally mandated this new terminology. According to the AP, "illegal immigrant" is too imprecise. It writes: "The Stylebook no longer sanctions the term 'illegal immigrant' or the use of 'illegal' to describe a person. Instead, it tells users that 'illegal' should describe only an action, such as living in or immigrating to a country illegally."

This growing liberalism has begun to permeate policy. Over the past two decades, the United States has witnessed tremendous progress on left-leaning immigration reform. According to a November 2014 poll from NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, nearly 74 percent of Americans now support a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants (as long as they take steps such as paying back taxes), relative to only 47 percent in 2009.

The U.S. Congress also came close to passing – several times since 2001 – a highly popular DREAM Act that would have allowed undocumented youth to attend university and gain lawful employment. Several states have since passed their own versions. And the Obama administration, since winning re-election in 2012, has made immigration a core priority. The Senate passed bipartisan legislation in the summer of 2013, and the president recently – in November 2014 – unveiled a slew of administrative actions that offer temporary reprieve (and the lawful ability to work) to certain members of the undocumented community.

Israeli undocumented policy, on the other hand, has become progressively rigid. Whereas the Interior Ministry and Israel Defense Forces border security (along Israel’s boundary with Sinai) used to have fewer resources at their disposal, they’ve begun in recent years to crack down more firmly. A fence was completed in December 2013, halting the influx of further undocumented immigration. More relevantly, the government has subjected undocumented immigrants – already in the country – to a handful of controversial policies.

The government has largely neglected the legal due process that determines official status as an asylum seeker, and has constructed large detention centers – most notably Holot – where it sends undocumented migrants into faraway custody. The government has also begun deporting undocumented immigrants to unstable countries, while neglecting to make public the associated, and necessary, bilateral agreements.

Meanwhile the Population, Immigration and Border Authority has appreciably broadened its detention criteria. Whereas it was previously restricted to corralling immigrants who had spent multiple years in Israel, it can now summon any Eritrean or Sudanese citizen to Holot, regardless of the longevity of their stay. Furthermore, the roughly 1,200 immigrants recently released from Holot – at the Supreme Court’s behest – have been strictly prohibited from residing in Tel Aviv or Eilat. The Knesset’s policy toward undocumented immigrants has, in short, sought to circumvent judicial decisions and maintain a degree of unforgiving pressure.

It’s common in Israel to refer to undocumented immigrants as foreigners (known in Hebrew as zarim). The word "infiltrator," moreover, is used with regularity by both right-wing members of Knesset and prominent newspapers (excluding Haaretz, which opts for "migrants"). Even the Knesset committee that oversees refugee policy is entitled the Committee on Foreign Workers. As long as public discourse remains laden with negative terminology, the common-sense immigration reforms that we’d like to enact in Israel will remain troublingly elusive.

As for Europe, the language there, as in Israel, will signal developments in governmental policy. If European publications respond to criticism by adopting more accepting discourse, and start referring to Syrian "migrants" as "asylum seekers," we will likely see EU policy grow in coordination and generosity. This would be another welcome example of the far-reaching influence that our everyday words can project.

Michael Brodsky is Project Director at Countable, a civic tech start-up based in California. He has previously worked with the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, and holds a master’s from the London School of Economics. Michael writes on the intersection of immigration, civic technology, and Israeli affairs.

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