When is a word more than just a word? How can language impact attitudes and behaviors? How we talk about immigration and immigrants affects our understanding not only of the national debate, but also our ability to empathize.
Immigration terms can be used to disparage and to be deliberately misleading. In 2011, the American Immigration Council debated the definition of the term “anchor baby” as it was defined in the American Heritage Dictionary on the grounds that it was not categorized as a pejorative. The Council ultimately succeeded in getting the American Heritage Dictionary’s executive editor, Steve Kleinedler, to change the definition, who readily acknowledged the error, but what stands is a lesson (and a reminder) that immigration terms are emotionally loaded and used to negatively reframe rather than reflect understanding.
For reference, here are the original and revised definitions of the term “anchor baby.”
More recently, the Pew Research Center noted a correlation between the frequency of the term “illegal immigrant” and the context of a congressional debate on immigration in the media. They found that when Congress considered a major immigration bill in 1996, 2002, 2007, and 2013, the term “illegal immigrant” was used more often. In 2014, they noted a trend to diminish the use of this term with some major newspapers prohibiting the term “because they said it lacked precision and broadly labeled a large group.” In its place, the term “undocumented” has become more popular in usage, but “illegal” is still a term commonly used.
Jonathan Rosa, a linguistic anthropologist at the University of Massachusetts, told National Public R that the terms “undocumented” and “illegal” are more than just a reflection of a socio-political environment; “it’s a way of taking action in the world” and that the terms carry “social consequences.” As educators, we have to be concerned not only about the accuracy of information shared within the classroom, but especially about potential social consequences. The risk of alienating and disenfranchising immigrants in classrooms and communities is too great. It runs counter to the message we want to send to students which is: “You are a person who matters. You are somebody and you are important.”
To call someone “illegal” is an inaccurate and damaging label. As Nobel Peace Prize Winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel famously noted “no human being is illegal.” Illegal is an adjective that describes something unlawful. Jaywalking is illegal. Parking without a permit is illegal. Not filing your taxes is very illegal. So for teachers, what can we do to not only send the right message, but equip our students with the skills to interrogate the message? How do labels make us feel?
Here’s an idea about how to have that dialogue with students and build a culturally inclusive classroom that recognizes the power of words to shape our understanding not just of debates, but of people.
Start by asking students what is the difference between denotation (the explicit definition of a word) and connotation (the implied definition of a word). If students are stuck, you might ask “what’s the difference between “overjoyed” and “glad?”” Students should be able to recognize a distinction even if they mean the same thing. Try a few examples until you feel that students understand.
Next, give students the Pew Research Center article and have them determine its central idea. Push them to support their answers with evidence.
Have students apply denotation and connotation to these frequently used immigration terms. See Teaching Tolerance’s The Language of the Immigration Debate for probing questions.
Compile a comprehensive list of immigration terms as a class based on what students have heard in the media and in their lives. Discuss if these words are used impartially or if they carry a bias, even a hurtful one. How would it feel to be called “illegal”?
For an extension, ask students to collect five recent articles on immigration and identify how often they come across the terms you discussed in class and what that might tell about our present moment. You can also ask students to cut and paste the articles to make a word cloud on Wordle and present their findings to the class for a follow-up discussion. We would love for you to share them with us! Please email us your PDFs or screen shots of your Wordles at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will gladly post them on our blog for others to learn from.
For reference, a brief glossary of immigration terms:
(See the glossary of Migration Policy Institute (MPI) report Immigration: Data Matters for more terms)
Alien – an alien is any person who is not a citizen or national of the United States (as a legal term defined in the Immigration and Nationality Act)
Citizenship – a person’s formal legal status that links to their country of birth or naturalization and conveys a set of legal rights, protections, and responsibilities.
– an action not allowed by the law
note: according to the MPI, there is no consistent cross-country definition of an immigrant)
Immigration – the act of moving from one country to another
International Migrant – any person who changes his or her country of usual residence
Lawful Permanent Resident – a noncitizen who has been lawfully granted the privilege of residing and working permanently in the United States
Migrant – a person who moves across borders
Unauthorized – not having official permission
Unauthorized Migrant – a person who arrives or resides in a country without valid authorization from the country’s government
Undocumented – not having the official documents that are needed to enter, live in, or work in a country legally