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Government Shutdown Language Gets Weaponized

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While issues related to immigration, including the DACA problem, are serious and complex, and appear to be playing a major role in the shutdown gripping Washington, at least some of the problem may lie in – or at least be exacerbated by – the use of politically correct words which have been weaponized in part to mislead the public, says public interest law professor John Banzhaf.

The federal government has long called non-citizens who are in the country illegally “illegal aliens,” but those who favor their interests in various immigration disputes argue that they should instead be called “undocumented aliens,” and indeed have even tried to prohibit the use of the former term.

But “illegal alien” is a clear and precise term long used to refer to such individuals, whereas “undocumented immigrant” is a more recent creation which is neither, and can be misleading; and perhaps the deliberate result of a phrase designed to reduce the stigma of them having engaged in a crime.

The word “immigrant” suggests people who have come here legally, and seeks to link them in the minds and hearts of many with those who came here legally, as in “we are all a nation of immigrants.”

The phrase “undocumented immigrant” is even more misleading, because it suggests that the problem is simply one of documentation – or some type of lack of documentation – rather than a criminal act.

For example, says Banzhaf, someone who sells Demerol is not an “undocumented pharmacist,” any more than a layman treating or even operating on patients is an “undocumented physician” or “undocumented surgeon,” or a bank robber is simply an “undocumented withdrawer” of funds.

However, notes Banzhaf, the phrase “illegal alien” is also misleading in an important way which may be having an impact on public opinion, constituent calls to Congress, etc.

Although persons who are not lawfully in this country can fairly and accurately be called “unlawful” or “illegal,” to many people the latter word suggests criminality – i.e., that those who engage in illegal acts are necessarily criminals.

But while entering this country illegally does constitute a crime (although only a misdemeanor), entering legally on a valid visa, but failing to leave when the visa expires, is illegal but not a crime.

Those in that situation can be deported, and have no right to re-enter, but they cannot be convicted of a crime. This is an important distinction because it has been estimated that about 40% of the illegal immigrants in the U.S. today simply overstayed their visas, and therefore are illegal but not criminals.

Even the term DACA [the Deferred Actions for Childhood Arrivals], an American immigration policy that allowed some individuals who entered the country as minors, and had either entered or remained in the country illegally, to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and to be eligible for work authorization and other benefits – can be misleading.

For example, many of the images on television, and the biographical articles in newspapers, portray DACAs as teenagers or young college students. Indeed, they are frequently referred to as “DACA Kids” or “Dream Children” – a description more likely to tug at the heartstrings of many Americans.

But it turns out that the majority now in the DACA program are not students at all, and many are already employed, sometimes in lower-paying and lower-skilled jobs.

So, unlike many of their younger cohorts who cannot leave the country because they are under the control of parents or guardians, many in the DACA program, and therefore in the country illegally, are free to leave but choose not to. If so denominated, this might put them in a different light, suggests Banzhaf.

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John F. Banzhaf

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