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The language around immigration is ramping up with the political debate

Immigration will certainly be a central issue on the campaign trail this year as the election heats up. It’s already a central issue in the Arizona Legislature.

As the debate over how to handle the record numbers of migrants arriving at our Southern border heats up, so does the language we use to talk about it.

Republicans in the state Legislature introduced a ballot referral dubbed the Protecting Arizona Against Illegal Immigration Act. They sent Gov. Katie Hobbs another bill she vetoed called the Arizona Border Invasion Act.

On the other side of the political spectrum, President Joe Biden referred to an alleged murderer as “an illegal” in his State of the Union address last week.

So, how does the language we use to talk about immigration change the conversation?

Megan Strom says a lot. Strom is an expert in this arena. She has a Ph.D. in Hispanic linguistics and researches the representation of immigrants in the media. She says the anti-immigrant sentiment in much of this language hasn’t changed in our country’s history. But, the words we use have.

Interview highlights

MEGAN STROM: But if we go back to the first newspapers that were published in the United States, we're talking around like 1690, the exact same sentiment existed then as does now. And the one thing that we see changing is just the specific terms that we use in the media when we talk about immigrants.

LAUREN GILGER: So let's talk then about what's happening now. We're, we're watching this debate over immigration right now in our country really ramp up. It's an election year. This is going to be one of the big issues. And I think it seems to me at least having covered this for a long time. It's, it's, you're starting to hear the language around it ramp up as well. I'm hearing a lot of politicians talk about illegal aliens. There's lots of invasion language in politics right now. What are you hearing?

STROM: Yes, to all of the above. I think it's a good point to mention that we are in an election year. And so I am not at all surprised that we would hear these terms ramped up, but these are also terms that are not new either. So we have the term illegal, especially illegal paired with alien, that's been used for decades now. And I would say that actually the use of illegal and illegal alien had fallen out of use. It was quite disfavor as of maybe starting in the 2010, '11, '12 period up until recently. And then not surprisingly, we'll hear folks pick it back up in an election year because they're trying to drum up fear so that they can gain voters.

The invasion language that you're talking about, that is not new at all. That's probably been around for hundreds of years. And again, what is that doing? That is pitting folks against each other. And the people who use that terminology are clearly signaling to voters like, hey, you know, this is our common enemy. So vote for me because you know that I will protect you from that common enemy.

GILGER: One of the papers that you've written about this in academia, I thought was really interesting, was about about the use of like water-based language. We hear a lot of this like floods, waves, surges of migrants coming. It made me really think as a journalist who writes about this stuff all the time. Tell us little bit about what you found there.

STROM: So what we see is that water based terminology used to refer to immigrants really came to the fore right around 1965 when we had a big immigration bill that was passed. And so this is not new in the United States either historically when we have an economic crisis or when we have what we perceive to be a brand new immigration event or immigration legislation is when we'll start to see folks pulling out all this terminology to speak negatively about immigrants. So starting in about 1965, we see folks using terms like surge like wave, like flood to refer to immigrants.

And the thing that happens with this terminology is that on the face of it, it looks so innocent. Like nobody would ever say, oh, you know, we suffered a flood last year and say, oh, you, you really have to stop using that word flood. It is very discriminatory, right? But when we suddenly use flood as a metaphor to refer to immigrants, and now we're saying a flood of immigrants arrived at the Arizona border this weekend. Now it's really different, and it is discriminatory because what we're doing is we're mapping the characteristics of a flood onto a human being. And a flood is not a human, a flood is something that humans automatically know. Oh, that's scary. That's something I want to keep away from me. We need to stop that. That's terrible. We don't want that in our country. And suddenly now what we do and we say a flood of immigrants is we're allowing our viewers and listeners to say, oh, immigrants are bad. Immigrants are scary. Get them out of our country, keep them away. They're gonna cause bad things for us. And so that's the danger of that water-based terminology, is that when we use them as metaphors to refer to human beings, now, suddenly they're not human beings.

GILGER: So let's talk about the other side of this, right? Like the the effect of this kind of language that sometimes, you know, might be unintentional and, and not used in in a, in a way that's meant to harm, but sometimes really is meant to divide and to drum up, you know, political support on one side or the other. How does this language, the language we use, the specific words that we use about immigration, how does it affect the national conversation and, and maybe even like the, the reality of the policies that end up becoming, you know, law?

STROM: That's a good question because again, I think a lot of folks would argue like, oh, what's the big deal, flood, a surge of immigrants. That's not a bad thing to say. But when we think about the intersection of language in society and language in human beings, language shapes the way that we see the world, particularly when we use metaphors like a surge of immigrants arriving at the United States border. And so the effect of the use of these kinds of water-based terms and these kinds of anti-immigrant metaphors like illegals crossing the border has the implication for viewers and listeners and just the general public of being afraid of immigrants.

And if you're afraid of something, certainly you're not going to want to vote for politicians who will treat immigrants in a compassionate and humane way. You're going to want to choose the candidate that is quote tough on immigration and is going to make sure that those folks don't continue to flood our borders and present a surge at the borders. So we start to see where this might actually influence folks and how they think about voting and politics in general.

GILGER: When we think about how language might shape the way that we view the world, what do you make of the argument, some might say, right, like that, using the term illegal alien is just using the legal term for this, right? Like that's what it's referred to in law. Do you think that there are some legitimate arguments for the way that some people use these?

STROM: Well, if you're gonna be using the term in the legal sector, OK. But that's not how we're hearing it being used in the media. So I think that that does not support those folks and saying, oh, well, I'm just following the prescribed way to use this terminology. I just don't think that that argument holds water because at this point. I think we're all very aware of how damaging that term illegal and particularly illegal alien is.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.