Hood column: ‘Newspeak’ on immigration
By John Hood
RALEIGH ó News journalism should not take sides in political disputes. So the next time you see a newspaper or television station refer to “undocumented workers,” you may properly conclude that it is no longer practicing news journalism.
“Undocumented worker” is the favorite euphemism of many political activists who favor amnesty or other permissive responses to illegal immigration. Their Orwellian goal is to alleviate public concern about illegality and cost by manipulating the English language. It’s a free country, so they get to say whatever they want. But those who claim to report the news dispassionately have no business colluding with such activists to misstate reality with nebulous or ill-fitting terms.
Objectively, the term “undocumented worker” doesn’t work. Not all immigrants are workers. Some are children, disabled, college students, or aged adults, for example. As for documentation, that’s never the real issue at hand. Some citizens or legal residents find themselves “undocumented’ when applying for jobs or services, in the sense that they’ve forgotten or misplaced their birth certificates, Social Security cards, or other items. But many of those who reside in the country illegally or seek illegal, off-the-books employment possess plenty of documentation. It may be fraudulent, but it exists.
The use of the term “undocumented” as a substitute for illegal is absurd. Try applying it to other legal or policy disputes without guffawing.
For example, I happen to be one of those who believe that marijuana should be decriminalized, especially for patients who use it to alleviate pain. I also believe that governments should not regulate occupations such as barbering or auctioneering, and I don’t think that governments should set wages and prices in a marketplace of competent, informed adults. That doesn’t mean I think it would be anything but laughable to demand that reporters call pot an “undocumented therapy,” report that customers who get their hair cut by unlicensed barbers have purchased an “undocumented coiffure,” or refer to business paying workers off-the-books as practitioners of “undocumented capitalism.” These are all illegal acts. I wish they weren’t, but there it is.
As it happens, I am also pro-immigration. I think that, on balance, America benefits from healthy immigration flows and should take pride in its status as a free labor market and a beacon of liberty and opportunity. It is far too difficult for prospective workers to enter the country legally. The strong pull of economic opportunity induces many to disregard the law, with deleterious consequences for themselves and others.
But I recognize that the only way to build public confidence in any future immigration reform is to take their legitimate concerns seriously. The government certainly does have a responsibility to ensure that individuals entering our country are free from communicable disease, have no serious criminal records or intent, and plan to obtain employment to support themselves and their families. So there must be an orderly, legal immigration process. When self-styled “advocates” for immigration use terms such as “undocumented” to describe illegality, they express contempt for the rule of law. It makes the public angry. That’s hardly a step towards immigration reform.
As for journalists, they have no business participating in such a charade. The correct English term to describe those who have entered the United States contrary to law is “illegal alien.” They are illegally residing in the country, which makes them illegal residents. (Sorry to sound so grade-schoolish, but it’s warranted when even college-educated people claim to believe that someone who illegally enters the country is not illegally residing there if he stays.)
And “alien” is a fittingly broader term that “immigrant,” because it includes not just people who come to a country with an honest intent to put down roots (the definition of immigration) but also visitors, criminals, and migrant workers who move back and forth across the border based on seasonal employment needs and family responsibilities back home.
I understand that “alien” now has an E.T.-related snicker factor, so “immigrant” will do as an imperfect but defensible substitute. But “undocumented worker”? Please. Newspeak is not AP style.
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John Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of CarolinaJournal.com.