As activists reach for effective code words as tools of persuasion, objectivity and accuracy take a whacking. We're reminded by Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer Jeff Gammage that words matter. He observes
“The correct term is ‘illegal alien,’ ” Hans von Spakovsky wrote in the conservative magazine National Review. “The politically correct term ‘undocumented immigrant’ … is a made-up term used by progressive groups and media sources to extinguish the line between legal immigrants and illegal aliens.”
This sort of thing does not sit well with advocates of illegal immigration- uh, er, illegal immigrants (video below from 2/17). Gammage notes
“I’m a human being,” said Maria Sotomayor, who immigrated from Ecuador and is now deputy director of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition, an advocacy group. “A human being is not a crime.”
Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel famously said that no human can be illegal. Pope Francis refers to “migrants” and “refugees” and “our brothers and sisters.” And last year, the Library of Congress dropped “illegal alien” from its subject headings — angering conservative lawmakers who claimed the library had bowed to liberal pressure.
I hate to argue with Elie Wiesel and anyone named "Sotomayor" (no indication whether Maria is related to that other Sotomayor), but they're roughly as wrong as von Spakovsky.
Admittedly, no human being can be illegal- or legal, for that matter. However, the term "illegal immigrant" describes someone who has immigrated illegally. (If this sounds easy to understand, kindly inform Wiesel and Sotomayor.) Moreover, in this phrase, "illegal" is an adjective modifying "immigrant"- not person.
Thus, an individual may be an "illegal immigrant" just as she may be a "lousy carpenter" or "good carpenter," which is not an evaluation of her value as a person, but only as a carpenter. Similarly, she may be an "inadequate pastor," one who is insufficiently effective as head of a church, though possibly a great woman. Or she may be a great mentor, impressive at mentoring, or a great athlete or great mother or conversely, a bad athlete or mother.
Hans von Spakovsky, a leading light of the voter suppression movement, is also off-base. The term "illegal alien" lacks the symmetry necessary if there are aliens who are "legal." If there are "illegal aliens," there must be "legal aliens," a term absent from anyone's lexicon. If instead there is no such thing as a "legal alien," the phrase "illegal alien" is redundant and thus must be discarded.
There may be insidious motives to the word "alien." It is intended either to offend as many people as possible, to rile critics, or both. Additionally, when I hear the word "alien," I can't help but think- and probably am expected to think- of this sort of creature:
So go ahead, activists. "Illegal immigrant" isn't as sexy as "alien" or "undocumented," but at least it's accurate.