Asymmetrical Information - Megan McArdle

04.03.13

Illegal Immigrants Have Been Banned From the AP Stylebook

Changing the name will not change how people feel.

There's been a recent movement afoot to change the way we refer to illegal immigrants.  Undocumented immigrant seems to be the preferred standard, but the suggested replacements vary.  The AP has now responded by banning the phrase from its stylebook.  Kevin Drum is annoyed that they haven't suggested an acceptable substitute:

AP apparently now feels that there's no acceptable way to refer to people who are in the country illegally. Neither "undocumented immigrant" nor "unauthorized immigrant," is acceptable, and neither is anything else. Labels are flatly not allowed, despite the fact that we label people all the time. Kevin Drum is a blogger. Barack Obama is a politician. Etc.

This leaves us with constructions like "John Doe is a person who immigrated to the United States illegally." Or: "A bill pending in Congress would bar immigrants who are in the country illegally from receiving Medicaid." Clunkiness aside, I guess we can all get used to that, but I'm not sure how it especially serves the cause of accuracy.

I think the bigger problem is that this isn't going to work. I favor changing the rules to favor more (legal) immigration.  But I am under no illusion that I can make the case by changing the words that we use to talk about it.  Look at the evolution of the way that we refer to people with physical or mental disabilities.  "Retarded" was originally a nicer alternative to "mental defective".  Then people started using it as an insult, so we invented a raft of new euphemisms, like "special needs".  So now we get jokes about "sped kids" and being "special".  Unless the underlying social attitudes change, the new word eventually takes on all the baggage of the old one.  

Similarly with illegal immigrant, which was itself an attempt to nicen up "illegal alien", which in turn replaced earlier perjoratives like, er, wetback.   This has not stopped many people from wanting to ship the undocumented immigrants back across the border.

Yes, I know George Lakoff told you that you could make policy by changing the "frame".  But this is at best weakly true, and I'm very skeptical indeed that changing the name actually changes the frame.  Liberals seem to be convinced, for example, that Republicans won on the estate tax because they managed to rename it the "death tax".  But in my experience, arguing over the estate tax for much of the past decade, the name has nothing to do with it.  People believe, deep down inside, that you should be able to leave your stuff to your kids.  They get very upset if you suggest otherwise, whether you call it the estate tax, the death tax, or "fred".  

All of which is to say that I suspect the AP didn't suggest an alternative precisely because they know that any one, unified alternative will rapidly accumulate all the negative connotations that they're currently trying to get rid of by changing the name.