Words Mean Things in the Immigration Debate

If you control the meanings of words, you control the debate. But what if there are multiple meanings to every word or phrase used in politics? What happens when each side defines things and ideas not according to truth or reality, but in ways that support their own ideology? Ultimately, no real discussion can take place, because both sides, though employing the same verbiage, are talking about different things.

Take the immigration reform debate. Numerous verbal evasions of reality take place to avoid confronting the truth of the difficulty of the task facing a United States government that has largely ignored its own laws on the issue for the past generation. Three phrases in particular stand out.

The first is when liberals and other supporters of some sort of amnesty refer to “law-abiding” illegal immigrants. They say it to make said illegal immigrants sound less scary and not the dangerous, welfare-draining bogeymen that conservatives apparently – some in fact do – make them out to be. But the phrase is absurd on its face. What defines an illegal immigrant is the breaking of United States immigration law – and that is often followed by the breaking of employment laws. By definition, they cannot be law-abiding.

Its users seek, however sloppily, to designate a particular and real demographic for consideration. There are immigrants who came to this country illegally at some point in time who have never committed felonies since they have been here and have become contributing members of their community.

The real tragedy is that the stupidity of the term gives conservatives too easy a target; after dismissing the verbiage, they avoid dealing with the real issue at hand. It thereby obscures the true question: setting aside the issue of future border security, is it necessary or desirable to allow illegal immigrants already here to stay in the US if they have only broken immigration laws (and perhaps employment laws) out of desperation to provide a better life for their families.

Is it really conservative to pry them from the neighborhoods, churches, schools and more that they have become a part of for the last, say, decade and a half? Is it really conservative to task the federal government with rounding up and shipping out 11 million people?

These types of difficult questions are left unconsidered when liberals lob up softballs and conservatives, after smacking them out of the park, take a self-congratulatory home run trot.

Related to the previous reality-obscuring term, liberals avoid the question of lawbreaking by calling illegal immigrants ‘undocumented.’ The phrase turns the lawbreaking immigrant into a sympathetic figure. Like the tree falling in the forest that nobody heard, the undocumented are “in the shadows.” They are the people to whom we show no gratitude, despite their relentless work to give us the life we have. Because of our bigotry or our desire for cheap labor, it is implied, we simply don’t want to give them the credentials they need to make a better life here as a true citizen.

But getting immigrants documented is precisely the point. We have a process for doing just that and it goes back to one of the reasons that conservatives push for border security:

We need to know who is here and to make sure they can contribute to the system – and benefit from it.

It also misses the distinct behaviors of those who come here illegally and those who come legally. Perhaps the differing behavioral tendencies simply stem from the fact that status of some immigrants is legal and that of others is illegal, but that question is subordinated to the political points that the Left can score when it calls the Right “anti-immigrant” for opposing giving documentation to anyone who can get across the border.

Finally, both Democrats and many Republicans push for “comprehensive immigration reform” in one bill, intended to cover border security, legal immigration reform, what to do with illegal immigrants who are already here and more. Each one of those requires some level of reform, along with actual enforcement of the laws on the books.

The problem is that comprehensive reform in one bill cannot really occur. Through the very process of compromising in such a broad-sweeping process, solutions that deal comprehensively with the innumerable details of immigrations are pushed aside in favor of political deal-swapping. The greater the bird’s eye view of the issues, the more the trees are missed for the forest.

Sadly, congressional wheeling-and-dealing is usually what occurs. The alternative – gridlock – so bemoaned by the pseudo-intellectuals among us, is quite often preferable to the political favor trading that we substitute for statesman-like policy-making. In the same way, the misleading semantics of various political persuasions substitute shallow but impassioned position posturing in place of thought.