Immigration and the English Language

by Derrick G. Jeter

Well, Arizona has gone it done it—they’ve stirred the pot that should never be stirred; they’ve stirred the pot of illegal immigration. Their new law, which goes into effect this summer, now has the whole country is up in arms and a big brouhaha is blowing in from the four corners of the White House, Congress, various hispanic groups, and the media. Even the president of Mexico, Felipe Calderon has chimed in: “Criminalizing immigration, which is a social and economic phenomena, this way opens the door to intolerance, hate, and discrimination. . . . My government cannot and will not remain indifferent when these kinds of policies go against human rights.” [1]

Of course the key word Mr. Calderon either conveniently or ignorantly forgot was “illegal.” Arizona, as far as I understand the bill, isn’t criminalizing legal immigration. In fact, Arizona isn’t criminalizing anything, but merely mirroring federal law. The difference between the Arizona law and the federal law—again, as I understand it—is one of enforcement. Arizona means to enforce the law, while the federal government does not.

Besides all that, I’m not so sure the good folks in Arizona are quaking in their boots waiting for Mexico to spring into action to show that they are not indifferent to policies against human rights. Frankly, Arizonans, Californians, New Mexicans, and Texans have been waiting much too long for Mexico to get its act together to root out the corruption that is rife in its federal and state governments and its police forces. The abysmal economic, social, and legal conditions that exist throughout much of Mexico is a direct cause of illegal immigration, which has produced tremendous hardships on border states north of the Rio Grand. What is Mr. Calderon’s government doing about that? The truth of the matter is illegal immigration is a public safety issue in the United States, as well as a national security concern. Illegal immigration breeds additional illegal activities like drug trafficking, murder, and kidnapping. The city of Phoenix, for example, is the second leading city in the entire world for kidnapping. And we haven’t even touched upon the billions of dollars the states incur to education and medically care for the millions of illegal immigrants who don’t really call America home. Those immigrants who really want to be Americans come here legally and seek citizenship.

Perhaps Mr. Calderon should spend more time and energy making his country a better place to live and work, then the legislature of Arizona wouldn’t have to pass a law to enforce the illegality of illegal immigration, because many, if not most, of the illegals in the United States would stay in Mexico. Unfortunately, however, it doesn’t appear that Mr. Calderon and his government want to address these issues. He’d rather fume at the “intolerant,” “hate-filled,” and “discriminatory” Arizona legislature for have the gaul to actually enforce United States law against illegal immigration. How dare they?

Now, before you, my dear reader, tag me as an intolerant-hate-mongering-race-batting-anti-immigration-redneck-kook, let me tell you that I have friends who hail from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Canada. I also work with wonderful Brits, Aussies, Brazilians, Lebanese, Poles,, and Russians. And on top of that, I also have four nephews and nieces who are half Mexican and for whom I’d give my life. So the stigma of racism will stick here. The question in Arizona, or any discussion of illegal immigration, is not a matter of race—it is a matter of legality and what we mean by those terms.

With that in mind I must tell you about a recent report by the Associated Press, in which the Attorney General of the United States was going to challenge “Arizona’s new law which makes it a state crime to be in the United States illegally.” [2] Pause here for just a second and re-read that line. “Arizona’s new law [will make] it a state crime to be in the United States illegally.” Correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t “crime” and “illegally” synonymous? In other words, if something is a crime isn’t it by definition illegal? And if I do something illegal then by definition haven’t I committed a crime? Have we fallen so far down the rabbit hole that crimes are no longer illegal and illegalities are no long crimes? This sounds strangely familiar to strange conversation I read somewhere. Oh, yes, it was in Alice In Wonderland.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.” [3]

This is where George Orwell and the English language comes in, because the debate about illegal immigration is really about politics, not the truth. Or to put a finer point on it, the debate is about power, about who “is to be master.” And the use, or misuse, of language is a powerful weapon in that debate.

On December 15, 2008, I published an article on “Gay Marriage and the English Language.” I argued then that the proponents of gay marriage were sloppy and disingenuous in their use of language, particularly biblical language, to support their claim that the Bible actually favors marriage between homosexual couples. And I used Orwell and his famous essay, “Politics and the English Language,” as my foil. I find that the language used in the debate about illegal immigration is just as misleading and ambiguous as it is in the gay marriage debate.

In his essay, Orwell warned: “It is often easier to make up words . . . than to think up the English words that will cover one’s meaning. The result, in general, is an increase in slovenliness and vagueness.” [4] And so it is in the Associated Press report. The sloppiness and ambiguous manner in which the AP used the words crime and illegal leads to only once conclusion: that there is some illegality that isn’t a crime, rendering the meaning of the words crime and illegal as meaningless. But Orwell goes further:

The word Fascism has now no meaning except insofar as it signifies “something not desirable.” The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice, have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. . . . Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different. [5]

This is exactly what is happening to words like criminal, illegal, and immigration in the immigration debate—these words are “used in a consciously dishonest way.” Mr. Calderon would have us believe that the Arizona law criminalizes all immigration; that it is not specifically targeted at illegal immigration. What else can we conclude but that he is using the words criminal and immigration dishonestly?

The constitutionality of Arizona’s immigration law is an open question, and a good one. Nevertheless, the true constitutionality of the law cannot be determined if we are so slipshod and lackadaisical in our use of language, which makes up the debate. That’s why Orwell concluded his essay with this piece of sound advice:

The present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English . . . when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself. Political language—and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists—is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase—some jackboot, Achilles’ heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno or other lump of verbal refuse—into the dustbin where it belongs. [6]

Perhaps it’s time to throw out these worn-out words that are more times than not used dishonestly: intolerance, tolerance, racial, racism, hate-mongering, Nazism, and discrimination. At the very least we should not use them as stupidly as Mr. Calderon and the Associated Press used crime, immigration, and illegal. And if we could do that—avoid stupidity—this very important debate would be vastly improved.

[1] “Mexican President Slams Arizona Immigration Law,” April 26, 2010, Reuters, http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSN2620239020100426, accessed April 27, 2010.

[2] Pete Yost, “AG: Court Challenge Possible on Immigration Law, April 27, 2010, http://hosted.ap.org/dynamic/stories/U/US_HOLDER_IMMIGRATION?SITE=FLTAM&SECTION=HOME&TEMPLATE=DEFAULT, accessed April 27, 2010.

[3] Lewis Carrol, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, in The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition (New York: Norton, 2000), 213.

[4] George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” Essays (New York: Everyman’s Library, 2002), 959.

[5] Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” 959.

[6] Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” 966–67.

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