Language matters in developing our thoughts around immigration.

Mayim Bialik from The Big Bang Theory recently made a video where she calls out the use of “girls” when referring to women. In her video, she claims, “Language matters,” and it shapes the way people think.

Language in the Immigration Sphere

wordsWell folks, we agree. Language does matter, and this idea has been making its way to the forefront of discussion with the latest political news. What we are interested in is how recent discourse has impacted the view on limited English proficient immigrants and refugees.

To be clear, this discussion isn’t new, but it has definitely increased in popularity since the recent elections. NPR spoke about this subject in 2013 during the Obama era. They spoke with linguistic anthropologist, Jonathan Rosa, who says, “‘Undocumented’ and ‘illegal’ seem to be signaling one’s stance when it comes to immigration reform … the State Department’s definition of immigrant explicitly refers to lawful status, making the term “illegal immigrant” a contradiction. But undocumented immigrant doesn’t quite fit either because the term “makes it seem as though there’s [just been] an administrative mistake, as if a document wasn’t issued.”

Former President Obama chose to use the term “undocumented immigrant.” However, with our newest president, rhetoric around immigration has taken the negative stance, with the use of “illegal immigrant.”

Anyone working within immigration can tell you that the change in language has had a huge impact on the field, including in areas of funding, public engagement and hate crimes. If you doubt the power of language, you can literally see the difference in the data.

Language Sways Opinion

To be clear, I don’t think that people have suddenly become more racist or less accepting of immigrants. But language that has been used in the current conversation is certainly encouraging a negative view of immigrants, and there is an impact. Infact, Pew Research compiled data on opinions of immigration over time, which allows you to see the impact of immigration rhetoric on public opinion. There is a clear increase in negative opinions of immigration in the Republican party around the time the presidential campaigning started.

An issue arises when certain language sways public opinion from the actual facts. This is happening, for example, when President Trump accuses illegal immigrants of increasing crime. This is despite evidence that crime rates actually go down in the first generation of immigrants. When the leader of a country says one thing, but statistics say another, the leader’s voice appears to have more sway.

Sanctuary Cities Must be Punished

City of Denver, ColoradoAnother example which is close to any Denverites’ heart is the use of “sanctuary city” to describe Denver’s refusal to enforce federal immigration law. John Stroehr says, “‘Sanctuary’ is misleading. It implies protection from federal authorities when local governments can make no such guarantee. They can only enact policies that put the full burden of immigration enforcement on the shoulders of the federal government.”

The idea that so-called “sanctuary cities” have been breaking the law by protecting illegal immigrants has created support for “punishments”. For example, John Sessions recently threatened sanctuary cities with losing billions of dollars of funding if they continue to break the law.

Words Really Can Make a Difference

In my own personal experience, I have also seen the power of words. Being the middle of seven children, the political and life opinions of us vary greatly. Not long ago, “feminism” wasn’t even a word in our vocabulary, and when it was, it was used with mockery. Then, I became a feminist in Peace Corps, and I engaged in furious debates with my family over its misuse. Slowly, overtime, I could see change in how the word and concept was seen, until this point where now most my siblings claim to be feminists (even the males).

The same thing happened with myself being the subject that changed. I once had a car that I pretended was transgender, thinking it was funny that a car could have and change genders. After experiencing several close friends transition their born gender identities though, I no longer thought it was appropriate to use “trans”, “transexual”, etc as an insult or jibe as I had done in the past.

It is interesting to me now as I write this how my change in attitude was almost automatically followed by a change in language. It is certainly true that I started to see the impact and painfulness of my words, whereas before I didn’t. Which brings me to my final point: You may not see the negative impact of some words, but it is certainly there.

George Orwell wrote “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation, even among people who should and do know better.”

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