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Politics by euphemism
Scripps Howard News Service


April 12, 2006

What a difference a phrase makes.

Some years back, when we talked about foreigners sneaking into our land in contravention of the law and then setting up camp for years and years, we called them illegal aliens, which, of course, is exactly what they were.

Says one online dictionary by way of its first definition, an "alien" is an "unnaturalized foreign resident of a country." You can't come any closer than that except by tossing the word "illegal" ahead of the word "aliens" to differentiate them from legal foreign residents.

But some were unhappy with the word choice. They worried that the phrase was insulting because, you see, another definition of alien is a "creature from outer space," and besides, the word as an adjective can also denote strangeness.

English, as we all know, is a language full of words with multiple meanings, and except in poetry and jokes, we mostly manage to understand that one meaning of a word does not somehow color another of its meanings. But politics was at work here, not lexicography, and those harping on the issue would not be appeased until most media outlets were calling illegal aliens "undocumented workers" and later "illegal immigrants" and finally - in a surprising number of cases - just "immigrants."

Then the word manipulators sprang their trap - so to speak.

When members of Congress proposed laws to regain control of who resides in America, opponents acted as if they were betraying something fundamental in America's traditions. According to them, these lawmakers were picking on immigrants - and aren't we a nation of immigrants? Didn't all of our ancestors or we ourselves come from other lands, and doesn't this fact mean we should embrace all these other immigrants?

Well, yes, we are a nation of immigrants in a certain rough sense, but no, we are not a nation of illegal aliens. The emotional appeal of a kind of historical kinship is false. Most of us ended up here in accordance with legal prescriptions meant to serve the country's best interests. The illegal aliens didn't. They did not come here thinking they were invited by the government or in ignorance that they were cheating others who played by the rules. Their presence is in fact a challenge to democracy - specifically to the question of whether our borders will be ruled by the determination of elected representatives or by the willpower of those who see the law as nothing more than a hindrance to personal objectives.

Many of the arguments on behalf of the aliens - that they serve the economy and only take jobs no citizen would bother with - don't hold up when you look at the numbers. They depress wages for unskilled labor, bring poverty to America with them and avail themselves of services to which they are not entitled. Least of all do they do a favor to themselves. These mainly decent, hard-working people are exploited here. They are denied the rights of citizens. Many live in fear of being caught.

You could fix much of the abuse suffered by the illegal aliens here at the moment if you gave them amnesty, but whenever we've tried that, we've ended up worsening things. The amnesty conferred in the Reagan years did not slow down the influx of illegal aliens. The 11 million illegal aliens in the country now is three times what it was then.

Finding practical, humane solutions is not easy, although one or two answers are that we should impose criminal penalties on anyone hiring illegal aliens and that we need to beef up border security. We should take care to avoid anything ugly, but we should understand, too, that to the extent that the aliens are victims, they are largely self-made victims.

We do need to act. Look over at France and its inability to solve a welfare-state problem that could increase employment because of demonstrations in the street. Take note that this is one more symptom of the demise of that once-great nation. Then look at us and the demonstrators marching about saying we are a nation of immigrants, causing lawmakers to freeze in their tracks. Look at the Senate's disarray on the issue. Maybe we should be asking ourselves whether a grossly misleading euphemism is a sign of our own inability to address anything important.


Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado.
He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)
Distributed to subscribers for publication by Scripps Howard News Service.

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