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The Language of Illegal Immigration

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The Language of Illegal Immigration

The Language of Illegal Immigration

Other than what to do with them, few debates surrounding illegal immigration cause as many arguments as what we should call them. In this Reporter's Notebook story, Changing America Desk reporter Michel Marizco spent some time talking to border residents to see what language people use to describe illegal immigrants. Some of the answers may surprise you. We want to warn you ahead of time; there is some language that you may find offensive.

"Illegal immigrant." "Illegals." "Border hoppers." "Mojados." "Illegal alien." "Wetbacks." "Undocumented citizens." "Undocumented workers." "Undocumented person in this country."

The answers go on and on. They change from one person to the next. An Oklahoma judge had to apologize recently for calling his roofers wetbacks. When the United States deported a million illegal immigrants 55 years ago, few blanched at "Operation Wetback." Nowadays? That term is unacceptable.

People in Arizona can't even decide what to call their kids. Arizona's having a debate about U.S. born children of illegal immigrants. That's led to a debate about the term anchor babies which is used to describe those children.

Jim Griffith is an old Tucson folklorist.

"Everything from those folks to border crossers to illegal border crossers. I sort of like the word 'alambristas.' That suits me."

I have to look up the word, alambristas. Wire jumpers.

"Every label can be politically charged. One of the things we're suffering from is that this particular group of people does not have a formal voice."

Many journalists use illegal border crosser or even, illegal entrant. In a story for a southwest magazine, the editor went with quote … immigrant worker smugglers. We even disagree here at Fronteras: The Changing America Desk. Some reporters go with undocumented immigrant. Others, illegal migrant. Or, Illegal immigrant.

The government prefers to use illegal aliens.

Vincent Picard is the spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Arizona.

"Our policy is to use illegal aliens and that is because the term most accurately reflects the definition contained in the Immigration and Nationality Act."

ICE agents use UDAs, short for undocumented alien. But not in public.

"In any bureaucratic organization or pretty much any place, employees have different terms or perhaps use shorthand to refer," Picard said.

It's not just the illegal border cro-, undocu- illegal migrants. We throw labels on everybody involved along the border.

Ana Alonso is an assistant professor in anthropology at the University of Arizona.

"I don't just see it on the right. I also see it on the left when ranchers who have legitimate grievances are simply dismissed as racists," Alonso said.

Whatever we use. Racists. Anchor babies. Wetbacks. Mojados. Undocumented immigrants. They're all phrases that color the issue.

"They obscure the real problem. And so we get no further," Alonso said.

As a reporter, figuring out what to call people who are in the U.S. illegally has been a challenge. I've decided to stick with one of three terms … illegal, undocumented or unauthorized migrant.

Fronteras Desk senior editor Michel Marizco is an award-winning investigative reporter based in Flagstaff.