Comprehensive Immigration Reform and the 'I-word'

OAKLAND, CA - APRIL 30:  People with the group 'Youth United For Justice' hold signs in protest of Arizona's new immigration
OAKLAND, CA - APRIL 30: People with the group 'Youth United For Justice' hold signs in protest of Arizona's new immigration law as they prepare to march to Oakland City Hall April 30, 2010 in Oakland, California. Dozens of people marched in protest of Arizona state bill 1070 which was signed into law this past week and gives law enforcement officials unprecedented authority to stop and question suspected illegal immigrants. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

For the first time in nearly three decades, comprehensive immigration reform seems possible. President Obama has promised to prioritize the issue and act quickly. And after more than 70 percent of Latinos and Asians voted for President Obama, prominent Republican politicians and conservative talking heads -- including John Boehner, John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Haley Barbour, Sean Hannity and Charles Krauthammer -- were suddenly quick to support immigration reform.

Although many on both sides of the aisle are hopeful, comprehensive immigration reform is anything but a given. Rhetoric is much different than a bill making it through the House, where immigration hardliners like Steve King (R-Iowa) are sure to vehemently oppose a compromise of any kind. Even those in favor of comprehensive immigration reform don't necessarily agree on what that would entail, with the biggest sticking point being whether it would include a path to citizenship.

The most immediate impact of any comprehensive immigration reform would be providing a way for the estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States to gain legal standing. Legislative action also could force the mainstream media to finally stop using pathologizing language to describe immigrants.

In recent months Jose Antonio Vargas and his Define American organization, The Applied Research Center/'s "Drop the I-Word" campaign and Univision News have joined other activists and advocates in calling for the New York Times and the Associated Press to stop using "illegal" when referring to immigrants. Although many local and national media outlets have dropped the term, the Times and AP continue to defend its usage.

The Times and AP argue that "illegal" is an accurate and neutral term, but it is neither. In his 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell dispelled the misconception that "language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes." Mitt Romney's presidential campaign's strategic deployment of "illegal" illustrates this point.

In an extraordinarily shortsighted move, Romney took a hard line on immigration during the primary. He advocated for "self-deportation," the idea that eliminating economic opportunities for immigrants would force them to leave the country on their own, and he named anti-immigrant restrictionist Kris Kobach as a campaign advisor (which he later hedged on and tried to deny). Throughout the primary and the general election, Romney repeatedly used phrases such as "illegal immigrants," "illegals" and "illegal aliens." In doing so Romney further alienated many Latino voters and reinforced the false notion that immigrants are "the problem" rather than the flawed laws and policies meant to control migration.

Why did Romney use these terms? Yes, in part to establish his immigration enforcement bona fides in order to win the Republican nomination. But it also must be understood as part of a larger Republican strategy to normalize immigrants as "illegal" -- as "other." It is the same reason why most Republicans now calling for action on immigration reform do not support a pathway to citizenship.

With Latinos and Asians breaking so heavily in favor of Democrats, stigmatizing immigrants as "illegal" and blocking a path to citizenship is a last ditch effort by the Republicans to halt, or at least slow down, the inevitable demographic trends that present serious challenges to the future of their party. As Bill O'Reilly stated on Fox News on election night, the United States is "a changing country." He continued, "The demographics are changing. It's not a traditional America anymore. ... And, whereby twenty years ago an establishment candidate like Mitt Romney would roundly defeat President Obama. The white establishment is now the minority."

What will it take for the Times and AP to stop using a disparaging, value-laden term like "illegal"? The answer may depend on what happens with comprehensive immigration reform.

Jorge Durand, an anthropologist at the Universidad de Guadalajara and co-director of the Mexican Migration Project, pointed out in an interview that recent immigrants have never had the opportunity to change their status. "For more than 20 years there hasn't been any program of regularization [in the United States]. So, how can you regularize yourself if no immigration reform exists that allows you to regularize yourself?"

As a result, categories such as "legal" and "illegal" immigrants -- categories created by the federal immigration bureaucracy and reinforced by much of the mainstream media -- have increasingly come to be seen as natural. Passing comprehensive immigration reform could remind us that they are constructions, and that they are in flux.

If comprehensive immigration reform is enacted it will be thanks to immigration activists as much as shrewd politicians. Their sustained on-the-ground political pressure kept immigration in the headlines and pushed President Obama to implement Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. In turn, they helped him win re-election and forced Republicans to re-think their staunch opposition to reform. If the end result is that an estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants can suddenly adjust their legal status, then activists and politicians together may also change the language the Times, AP and general public use to describe immigrants.