Lars Larson, a conservative radio host in Portland, Oregon, who supports President Donald Trump, uses the phrase “illegal aliens” on his nationally syndicated talk show to describe immigrants living in the country unlawfully.
“I think it’s a way to define a problem,” Larson said. “We’re a nation of laws.”
Cecilia Muñoz, a longtime immigrant rights advocate who served as President Barack Obama’s domestic policy adviser, calls those words “pejorative” and prefers alternatives such as “undocumented immigrants.”
“Aliens, in the public mind, are not a good thing,” Muñoz said.
Their disagreement over how to describe an estimated population of 11 million people might seem like minor semantics in the tempestuous, decades-long debate over how to overhaul the nation’s immigration system. But people on both sides say the yawning gap in language has come to symbolize – and directly contribute to – the inability of Congress, and the general public, to forge consensus. An impasse on immigration was at the center of the budget fight that led to a partial shutdown of the federal government on Saturday.
Though Trump’s use of a vulgarity in a recent immigration meeting at the White House drew widespread condemnation, a series of more mundane terms has been weaponized by immigration hawks, and to a lesser degree advocacy groups, in pursuit of political advantage.
On the right, Trump and his allies have warned of the dangers of “chain migration,” railed against “amnesty” for lawbreakers and urged a shift toward a “merit-based” system. Their choice of words suggests immigrants are taking advantage of the United States and are a drain on society.
On the left, advocates have defended a tradition of “family reunification” and cast immigrants who arrived illegally as children as “dreamers” and “kids” in need of special care – even though some are in their 40s. Their rhetoric paints immigrants as the fabric of the American experience and as strivers seeking a chance at success.
The starkly different terms show why it’s so hard for Washington to agree on major immigration reform. For years, over several administrations, the two sides have accused each other of being unable, or unwilling, to accurately name the problem with a system they agree is broken.
“Who controls the parameters around language really has a lot of power in the debate,” said Roberto Gonzales, a Harvard Graduate School professor who specializes in immigration. “How do you frame an issue in a way that sways public opinion?”
Though disagreements over immigration terminology predate Trump’s presidency, Gonzales said his willingness to use extreme rhetoric in the name of undermining political correctness has exacerbated the problem and raised the stakes. He pointed to Trump’s campaign against “chain migration” in the wake of a terrorist attack in New York last fall in which Sayfullo Habibullaevic Saipov, an immigrant from Uzbekistan, struck and killed eight people while driving a truck on a bike path.
The president claimed, falsely, that Saipov, a permanent legal resident who is not a citizen, had helped two dozen foreign-born relatives immigrate to the United States. In fact, there is no evidence he brought a single family member.
Advocates say Trump aims to cast aspersions on all immigrants, whether they are here legally or illegally, and his repeated denunciations of “chain migration” are intended to advance policies to curb legal immigration channels – a longtime goal of Republican hard-liners and restrictionist groups.
The advocates use the term “family reunification” to describe the process of U.S. citizens petitioning for family members in limited categories – spouses, children, parents and brothers and sisters – to come here, a process that can take as long as 20 years. After changes were made to the immigration system in 1965, the family category has been responsible for about half of the roughly 1 million immigration visas the nation distributes each year.
But some newspapers and cable television stations have parroted Trump’s use of “chain migration,” often with limited context.
“It’s a real problem,” Gonzales said. “It’s become so distorted. If you use a term in an incorrect or incendiary way enough times people start using it that way.”
Jose Antonio Vargas, chief executive of Define American, a media advocacy group that focuses on immigration coverage, said conservatives have deliberately “created this entire linguistic parallel reality that is framed by the language they use.”
Vargas pointed to outlets such as Breitbart News, which supports Trump and – until this month – was overseen by his former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon. Breitbart published recent stories with headlines such as “Illegal Aliens Escalate Amnesty Demands” and “Anchor Baby Population in U.S. Exceeds One Year of American Births.”
Define American has run a campaign called “Words Matter” that asks news organizations to commit to dropping what Vargas calls “dehumanizing” phrases, such as “illegal immigrant.” Though some major outlets, including the Associated Press, have complied, Vargas said progress has been slow. (The Washington Post’s style guide still permits use of the phrase.)
“The right has been so good at using language as a weapon,” said Vargas, a former Post reporter who came out publicly in a 2011 New York Times story as an unauthorized immigrant from the Philippines. “Now we have gotten to the point where even legal immigration is a dirty word for people. That’s how successful they’ve been.”
Immigration hard-liners accuse advocacy groups of trying to discredit terms that have been considered mainstream for decades. The Department of Homeland, for example, continues to use the phrases “illegal alien” and “criminal alien” in reports, news releases and on Twitter.
In 2014, after Congress failed to approve a comprehensive immigration bill, Obama used his executive authority to announce a deferred action program to shield up to 4 million undocumented parents of U.S. citizens from deportation by granting them renewable, three-year work permits.
In making his announcement, Obama declared the program was “not amnesty.” His critics scoffed.
“Any time a politician says something is not really amnesty, what everyone hears it that this is an amnesty,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for lower immigration levels. “It would be, politically, so much better for them to just say, ‘Look folks, I don’t like it either, but we have a tax amnesty, we have a parking ticket amnesty, and sometimes we have to do it.'”
Larson, the radio host, said immigrant advocates are “lying to the public to try to make something sound good that is not. I don’t say a bank robber is making undocumented withdrawals.”
Enrique Gonzalez, a former aide to Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said the warring terminology has further inflamed an already emotion-laden debate.
In 2013, Rubio voted in favor of a comprehensive immigration bill that offered a 13-year path to citizenship, telling conservative talk shows that the bill did not amount to amnesty. His stance engendered such fierce blowback from his base that Rubio ended up dropping his public support.
“It creates this hysteria where everyone is going to the far left or the far right,” said Gonzalez, now an immigration lawyer in Miami. “The gap is growing wider and wider.”