Why you should care
Because if we can’t agree on proper language, we won’t be able to agree on policy.
Lauren Claffey is the founder of Claffey Communications and served in the Department of Homeland Security during the Trump administration.
As migrant caravaners tried illegally crossing the U.S.–Mexico border this past week, only to be rebuffed by tear gas fired by the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents they assaulted, they chanted: “We are international workers!” They told TV cameras they were looking for work — not fleeing violence or persecution in Central America.
But that’s not how they were described by the U.S. media, on social media or by politicians. This, unfortunately, has become a recurring theme in the new normal of a 24-hour news cycle and of viral online content in which misused terminology can make a big impact on public opinion. Instead of referring to them as international workers, reporters and commentators spoke on the fly and used several other terms to describe this group of people at the southern border:
- Asylum seekers
- Illegal aliens
- Illegal immigrants
- Undocumented immigrants
- Undocumented aliens
What I cannot stress enough is that these words and their different meanings matter. They matter not only from a legal perspective but in the way that the American public responds to the dilemma before them. Everyone from President Donald Trump to Sen. Bernie Sanders agrees we need immigration reform, but if we aren’t honest about who is at the border, then how can we expect to achieve a real, lasting solution?
Let’s start by defining the words being most frequently misused, beginning with asylum seekers. According to the United States Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS), asylum is granted to someone who has suffered persecution or fear that they will suffer persecution due to race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion. Asylum seekers are already in the U.S. when they file and just have to do so within a year of entering the country.
With any mass of people as large as the caravan, you will inevitably get a mixture of the people described above. Some are truly worthy of asylum in the United States; some are not.
This term is closely related to the term refugee, which has almost an identical definition except for the location in which they are applying for legal status. Refugees file for asylum while still abroad; asylees file inside the country or at a port of entry. The United States makes this distinction based on location, but the rest of the world does not when discussing refugees, which results in some confusion. This is why it’s important to combine asylum and refugee numbers when discussing the U.S. government’s overall humanitarian response.
Next up is illegal alien or illegal immigrants, which leads to a greater debate that also includes undocumented alien or undocumented immigrant. Alien is the legal term to describe anyone who’s not a citizen or national of the United States. Immigrant, as defined by the IRS, is an alien who has been granted the right by USCIS to reside permanently in the United States and to work without restrictions in the United States. They may also be referred to as a Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR).
Illegal is the adjective added to describe the individual and is often unnecessary. This is why the Associated Press recently changed its style guide in favor of using illegal as an adverb — to describe actions, such as living in or immigrating to a country illegally — and not as an adjective to describe people. Similar treatment is given to undocumented by the AP. No one in the caravan on the Mexican side of the border is “illegal” or “undocumented” at this time, according to U.S. law.
Finally, we have the term migrant, which is the most neutral. The AP also wrote about this in 2015 when Europe was facing a similar movement of individuals from Syria into the European Union. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a migrant is a person “who moves from one place to another, especially in order to find work or better living conditions,” and can include all of the terms described above, including international worker.
With any mass of people as large as the caravan, you will inevitably get a mixture of the people described above. Some are truly worthy of asylum in the United States; some are not. That is up to the immigration courts to decide.
So why does this matter? Because words matter, especially in national debates. Words influence how we approach policy solutions, and the complicated nature of this caravan and the diversity of the individuals traveling within it illustrate the complicated policy solutions we will need to solve it.
The media has a responsibility to consider the words they choose to describe these migrants and a greater responsibility to explain and correct the words used by politicians from both sides of the aisle. But we as citizens must also educate ourselves and understand what we are really debating.