Vocabulary changes always reflect the agendas of a political debate.
The fight over illegal immigration plays out by altering words and their meanings. Take the traditional rubric “illegal alien.” The English has been clear and exact for nearly a century: illegal alien (cf. Latin alienus) was a descriptive term for any foreigner who crossed the US border without coming through customs to obtain proper legal sanction.
Illegal alien, then, was a politically neutral, exact, and descriptive term: one used by both the Supreme Court and Internal Revenue Service.
But open-borders advocates did not like the adjective and noun because they accurately emphasized both illegality and the foreignness of those arriving into the United States from another country.
What's in a name?
What happened was a slow Orwellian devolution. Illegal alien initially was reinvented as “undocumented alien,” as if the violation became one of simply forgetting (rather than never having) one’s supposed legal documents at home. But the noun “alien” still implied arrivals were somehow separate from US citizens by virtue of their illegal resident status. So next the noun changed to immigrant, as if undocumented immigrant gave the impression that forgetful visitors had just strayed innocently across the border.
But why need a discriminating adjective at all?
Texas quail hunters discover illegal human trafficking
So a mere immigrant has sometimes replaced an undocumented immigrant, as if there were now no real difference between coming into the United States legally or illegally. Being against illegal immigration was now seen as being against lawful immigration itself.
Finally, why prejudice the immigrant by suggesting that he or she came from another place into the United States–as if this individual were some sort of intruder who thought America was somehow preferable to Yucatan or Guatemala?
As a result, migrant is now used without any -in or -ex prefix denoting direction: 11–15 million illegal immigrants were perhaps just migrants who often came and went in both nonjudgmental directions in the manner of other travelers.
The deliberate inference is that the impediments of laws, borders, and walls were unnatural and illegal, not the travelers themselves who passed to and fro between. The fault then belongs to the host, who wrongly felt that his home was his own and guests subject to his invitation.
The vocabulary of illegal immigration
The vocabulary of illegal immigration has made other adjustments to suggest that it has little to do with supposedly outdated federal immigration law.
What does “sanctuary city” really imply other than a place where advocates of illegal immigration ignore and override federal law to allow illegal aliens to reside, often in violation of the local, state, and federal law?
Such no-go sanctuary zones are supposed to channel the idea of religious and political sanctuaries in time of civil war. Sanctuary suggests that bad people chase good people into safe places like churches or monasteries, where even overzealous law enforcement cannot force their noble guardians to seize them. The intent is to invoke something sympathetic and romantic, like Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame and the sanctuary provided to the hounded Esmeralda by the famous Gothic cathedral, as agents of the state close in on her.
Yet a more honest description of sanctuary cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles would be “secessionist cities.” They are, after all, defiant state-rights enclaves that argue, in Confederate fashion, that the federal government and our Constitution ultimately have no power over their states’rights pushback. They recall the insurrectionary manner in which South Carolina in 1861 defiantly declared that federal laws within its borders were null and void and so helped set off the Civil War.
An equally accurate description would be “amnesty cities,” places where the consequences of breaking federal immigration law—as well as other criminal statues—were ignored (but only in the case of illegal immigrants).
A sanctuary city like San Francisco or a sanctuary state like California does not believe that the principles of exemption should be extended to any other federal laws or to local or state jurisdictions other than their own.
Certainly Bay Area liberals would have a fit if Oklahoma City residents declared that federal gun registration rules did not apply inside their city and thus one could buy and carry a .45 pistol off the shelf. Californians would go ballistic should the entire state of Utah declare dozens of Byzantine workplace statutes to be null and void within its state borders.
Whence the 'Dreamers'?
“Dreamers” is another linguistic contortion that increasingly and by design does not reflect reality.
Originally the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) act was an executive order— most likely unconstitutional and illegal—issued by former president Barack Obama to exempt foreign national minors who were brought by their parents illegally into the United States from federal immigration law enforcement.
Previously Obama, at least until his reelection bid in 2012, on several occasions had reemphasized that he had no such executive power to override federal law. Indeed, he reminded Latino activist groups that tragically he could not by fiat (“I am not a king”) nullify a federal law.
Note that in 2009, when Obama enjoyed a supermajority in the Senate and a Democratic House, he also had chosen not to ram through legislative amnesties in the manner that he successfully would do with the Affordable Care Act.
Yet four years later, when Obama wished to galvanize his base of minority voters, he did what he previously said he could not legally and therefore issued amnesties for what were now called “Dreamers.”
The term was meant to be limited to children and preteens brought by their parents unknowingly and illegally, in most cases from Latin America and Mexico, and who had subsequently grown up not knowing any other country than the United States. Yet Dreamers soon became an ethical rather than legal term, implying that all such minors were on their way to becoming successful Americans and thus had worked hard, gone to college, and would become exemplary Americans. Some of the Dreamers have done just that and, in any proposed immigration grand bargain, could, with conditions, be issued green cards to achieve legal residence.
But most Dreamers are now believed to be somewhere in their mid- or late-twenties (the average age of a DACA recipient is twenty-five, the starting age for serving in Congress). They are hardly any longer unknowing children without access to legal counsel or knowledge of their ongoing illegal status.
Nor does anyone know the exact status of the estimated one to two million Dreamers who were included in the Obama DACA amnesty: How many have committed crimes, dropped out of school, gone onto public assistance, or simply just recently crossed the border in hopes of retroactively being classified as exempt Dreamers?
Apparently no federal agency wishes to find out. So in lieu of such data, we instead just utter the collective Dreamers and condemn anyone who would dare suggest that a particular Dreamer might have a criminal record or no work history.
The current overarching immigration enforcement agency, ICE (Immigration and Custom Enforcement), has linguistically superseded the old rubric Border Patrol and further diluted it with a division of US Customs and Border Protection—as if stopping illegal crossings is not necessarily connected to vigilant watching and constant patrolling along a clearly defined border but rather more a matter of monitoring commerce and vaguely protecting a border.
Apparently illegal immigration is no longer a simple question of breaking the law to cross the sovereign boundary of a foreign country but rather a technicality of not going through all the necessary and, apparently, discriminatory and mostly unnecessary documentary hoops. If there is a porous border, how could one literally patrol it? Thus the need for new terms arose for new hoped-for realities.
Anytime an idea or political agenda cannot achieve majority political support, its sponsors turn to euphemisms and linguistic gymnastics.
The historian Thucydides warned us 2,400 years ago during the horrific civil war on Corcyra how “words had to change their meanings” to mask the ill intent of particular unpopular political agendas. In George Orwell’s two chilling novels Animal Farm and 1984, the totalitarian state erodes the law by changing constantly the names of things as if language can remake reality.
In our age, we have witnessed how the Obama administration went to great lengths to downplay the threats of radical Islamic terrorism. Apparently he preferred new words that would not capture the reality that thousands of radical Muslims had terrorized innocent civilians. In fact terrorism during the Obama years became a man-caused disaster or workplace violence, as if there was either no human agency in the Tsarnaev brothers’ bombings during the Boston Marathon or that Major Hasan yelled out “allakbar,” as he mowed down thirteen of his fellow soldiers had little, if anything, to do with Hasan’s Wahhabi extremism.
Under Obama the effort to combat radical Islamic terrorism became the bland overseas contingencies operation, as if Russians or Chinese were blowing up civilians with equal frequency. The point to such obfuscation was to deny that global terrorism was commonplace, that it was in our age largely committed by young male Muslims often living in or originally from the Middle East, that it was aimed largely at Western targets and their allies, and that it spread not because of Western culpability but due to grievances in the Islamic world against modernism in general and Westernization and globalization in particular.
Similar is the Orwellian effort to recalibrate through language illegal immigration.
Border Patrol officer Rogelio Martinez
Americans want safe borders
The public does not approve of open borders. It wants immigration law enforced. It believes there is at least a minority of those who crossed the border illegally that have either at some time broken more laws and have criminal records, relied on public assistance, or did not find a job and thus should be deported.
Most people further believe that illegal immigration erodes the cherished idea of legal immigration, given that illegal immigration ignores the law, is non-meritocratic, and is becoming less and less diverse. In part open borders reflect a political desire to recalibrate the demography of the American Southwest and thereby empower the Democratic Party and its progressive operatives in government, universities, and the media.
In sum the apparent agenda is to keep the border open when the vast majority wishes it closed to illegal immigration. That disconnect requires that language makes the necessary adjustments so that migrants and Dreamers, not illegal aliens, just wandered or were mysteriously brought en masse into America without real borders, certainly not illegally and certainly not at the expense of legal applicants from dozens of foreign countries who wait for years for legal permission to enter the United States.
San Francisco helped elect Trump
Among the factors contributing to Donald Trump’s improbable ride to the Oval Office were economic inertia, populist resentment, Hillary Clinton’s tactical blunders, and a thirty-two-year-old woman, Kate Steinle, shot to death on a San Francisco pier in the summer of 2015, allegedly by an illegal alien who’d previously been deported.
Steinle’s death, just fifteen days after Trump’s campaign kickoff, put a new and more human edge on his harsh immigration rhetoric (Trump called her “Beautiful Kate”). It also sparked a call for a national “Kate’s Law” that Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly championed would increase the penalties for deported aliens caught trying to reenter the United States. As for the Steinle family, which already has seen a wrongful death claim dismissed, the wheels of justice turn slowly: only last month did jury selection begin, with lawyers summoning the first of some thousand potential jurors to a San Francisco courthouse.
Victor Davis Hanson is a columnist and author of several books on national security, military history, and Classical history.