One of the clearest examples of how characterizing something slightly differently gives it a very different meaning occurs with the labeling of illegal immigrants. In a recent episode of MSNBC‘s “Hardball”, host Chris Matthews discusses the most popular ways of describing illegal immigrants, and the political ramifications of each. Matthews says:
When do you think, John, it becomes an ethnic slur? I mean, I try to be proper. Some people say ‘undocumented workers’, that’s very pro, I would think, a person here illegally. Some people say ‘illegal aliens’, which is pretty strong language, as [Michele] Bachmann does. That sort of doubles it down. They’re already illegal, let’s call them ‘aliens’. The others just call them, not even people, call them ‘illegals’. I watched that [Republican presidential primary] debate the other night, and I thought, they’re just trying to put these people down. ‘Illegals.’ That’s not even a person.
Matthews did a good job of encapsulating the most popular descriptions of illegal immigrants, and the very loaded, very different ways of classifying them for political effect. Presumably Matthews uses the term “illegal immigrant”, which is arguably the most accurate and neutral way to describe someone who moves to the U.S. illegally.
Next time you hear a discussion of illegal immigration, listen closely to the terminology used. It will likely give away the biases of the people using the terms, or at least the biases of those who are influencing them.