The politics of (illegal) style

Interesting news this week from the United States with an announcement by news agency Associated Press that it will no longer use or recommend the term “illegal immigrant”. In the words of senior vice president and executive editor Kathleen Carroll, “The Stylebook no longer sanctions the term ‘illegal immigrant’ or the use of ‘illegal’ to describe a person. Instead, it tells users that ‘illegal’ should describe only an action, such as living in or immigrating to a country illegally.”

The change makes sense. We don’t describe drink drivers, for example, as “illegal motorists”; a person isn’t defined by just one aspect of their legal situation. Of course the desire to avoid labelling can be taken to absurd lengths, but this seems a modest and reasonable step.

But with the US engaged in an often bitter debate about immigration reform, words are powerful political weapons. Opponents of reform are horrified at the change, while even supporters seem divided in their own usage, as New York magazine reported last week. The New York Times is also reconsidering its position, although it is unlikely to go as far as AP has.

Natural language is always imprecise; “illegal immigrant” is ambiguous as between “illegal person-who-immigrated” and “person who illegally-immigrated”. But because it risks connoting the former it’s probably best avoided.

The question also resonates in Australia, where many politicians and pundits are fond of applying the term to asylum seekers. But of course there is a fundamental difference between the two cases. Stealthily crossing the US/Mexican border to look for work really is illegal; travelling to Australia to seek political asylum is not.

There is also an enormous difference in the scale of the problem. Hundreds of thousands of Mexicans try to cross into the US every year (although the number has declined in recent years), whereas seaborne asylum seekers in Australia rarely amount to more than a thousand a year (although the last couple of years have been exceptional).

The fact that these very basic differences seem to have little impact on the debate is a fairly broad hint that the argument isn’t about the detail of immigration policy at all. It’s about much darker things: nativism, xenophobia, white supremacy.

Another hint comes from the curious fact that those who crusade against the Mexicans (and the asylum seekers) seem to have a lot invested in the idea that they are not anti-immigration, only opposed to “illegal” immigration. Hence the rhetoric, common to both countries, of “border protection”.

But while this idea has superficial appeal, in the context of a debate about immigration reform it makes little sense. The point is trying to decide what should or should not be illegal; defining yourself as just against illegality doesn’t come to grips with that at all. Clearly there is something else going on, and whatever it is it isn’t pretty.

Australia and the US are different societies in a lot of ways, but there are some very similar demons lurking under the surface.

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