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How the Right Made Racism Sound Fair – and Changed Immigration Politics

In June of 2009, Sen. Charles Schumer took the stage in front of a capacity crowd at the Georgetown Law Center. The event was billed as “Immigration: A New Era,” and Schumer, who chairs the Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security, was on campus to unveil his seven principles for a reform bill. The first principle set the tone for his speech. “Illegal immigration is wrong, plain and simple,” he said, before moving on to a linguistic primer for attendees. “People who enter the United States without our permission are illegal aliens. When we use phrases like ‘undocumented workers,’ we convey a message to the American people that their government is not serious about combating illegal immigration.”

In June of 2009, Sen. Charles Schumer took the stage in front of a capacity crowd at the Georgetown Law Center. The event was billed as “Immigration: A New Era,” and Schumer, who chairs the Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security, was on campus to unveil his seven principles for a reform bill.

The first principle set the tone for his speech. “Illegal immigration is wrong, plain and simple,” he said, before moving on to a linguistic primer for attendees. “People who enter the United States without our permission are illegal aliens. When we use phrases like ‘undocumented workers,’ we convey a message to the American people that their government is not serious about combating illegal immigration.”

In total, Schumer used the term “illegal” 30 times and “alien” 9 times. It was a far cry from just three years earlier, when Schumer instead talked repeatedly about “undocumented” immigrants when speaking to a group of Irish Americans. But as the senator explained in 2009, he’s choosing his words more purposefully these days.

And he is not alone. In the decade since the September 11 attacks, there has been a steady increase in language that frames unauthorized immigrants as a criminal problem. References to “illegals,” “illegal immigrants” and their rhetorical variants now dominate the speech of both major political parties, as well as news media coverage of immigration.

In fact, reviewed the archives of the nation’s largest-circulation newspapers to compare how often their articles describe people as “illegal” or “alien” versus describing them as “undocumented” or “unauthorized.” We found a striking and growing imbalance, particularly at key moments in the immigration reform debate. In 2006 and 2007, for example, years in which Congress engaged a pitched battle over immigration reform, the New York Times published 1,483 articles in which people were labeled as “illegal” or “alien;” just 171 articles used the adjectives “undocumented” or “unauthorized.”

That imbalance isn’t coincidental. In the wake of 9/11, as immigration politics have grown more heated and media organizations have worked to codify language they deem neutral, pollsters in both parties have pushed their leaders toward a punitive framework for discussing immigration. Conservatives have done this unabashedly to rally their base; Democrats have shifted rhetoric with the hopes that it will make their reform proposals more palatable to centrists. But to date, the result has only been to move the political center ever rightward—and to turn the conversation about immigrants violently ugly.

Calling someone “illegal” or an “alien” has a whole host of negative connotations, framing that person as a criminal outsider, even a potential enemy of the state. But it does more, by also setting the parameters of an appropriate response. To label unauthorized immigrants as criminals who made an immoral choice suggests that they should be further punished—that their lives be made harder, not easier. Not surprisingly, then, as rhetoric has grown harsher on both sides (or “tougher,” in the words of pollsters), legislation has followed suit. Border walls have been constructed, unmanned drones dispatched. Deportation numbers have continued a steady, record-breaking climb, while states pass ever-harsher laws.

These policy developments reflect—and find reflection in—a segment of the broader culture that is struggling with uneasy feelings about race and the ongoing transformation of the nation. When immigrants are targeted and murdered because of their status, and politicians joke about shooting them as livestock, we’ve moved to something beyond a simple policy debate. And at its swirling center is “the illegal”—a faceless and shadowy character who, it can be hard to remember, is actually a person.

The Language of Lawmaking

The art of choosing words has become big business in politics, for good reason. How a problem or solution is framed can be key to its chances of success.

Take, for example, Bush’s plan in 2005 to privatize Social Security. Republicans trumpeted the idea, with Bush repeatedly referring to the creation of private accounts for individuals. Democrats campaigned vigorously to label the proposal as too risky and support for the idea plummeted; privatizing Social Security, it turned out, made Americans uneasy. The Republicans then switched words. They talked about personal rather than private accounts and called media outlets to complain when they didn’t adopt the new language. But by then it was too late and the proposal died.

That a single word can reframe an entire debate points to the power of language in evoking broad, often unexamined feelings. A public library or park may sound like a welcoming place to pass an afternoon; a government (or even worse, government-run) library or park, on the other hand, can bring to mind images of dull texts and rusty equipment.

“Words have entire narratives that go with them,” says Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at University of California, Berkeley. “Government has acquired negative connotations, so public is what we call government when we don’t want to say ‘government.’ “

When President Obama unveiled his health care proposal, he was careful to call the creation of a government-managed plan the “public option.” As Republican strategist and pollster Frank Luntz told Fox News, “If you call it a ‘public option,’ the American people are split,” but “if you call it the ‘government option,’ the public is overwhelmingly against it.”

While language is always important, it has a special prominence when the discussion turns to immigration—and race. As Nunberg noted about the charged vocabulary around the topic: “The words refuse to be confined to their legal and economic senses; they swell with emotional meanings that reflect the fears and passions of the time.”

Wetback. Alien. Illegal immigrant. These are powerful words, each of which has, at different times in our recent history, been the most popular term used to describe unauthorized immigrants. And while some anti-immigrant activists claim that words like “alien” or “illegal immigrant” are neutral, each conjures up a whole host of associations. Nunberg noted that in 1920 a group of college students was asked to define the word alien, and what they came up with—“a person who is hostile to this country,” “an enemy from a foreign land”—hardly qualified as meeting its legal definition.

The same dynamic occurs today with illegal, especially when used to define a person rather than an action, such as working in the U.S. without authorization. “When two things bear the same name, there is a sense that they belong to the same category,” Nunberg told me. “So when you say ‘illegal,’ it makes you think of people that break into your garage and steal your things.”

“These are not small questions,” agreed Frank Sharry, the executive director of America’s Voice, a prominent immigrant advocacy group that has been a key player in Washington, D.C.’s word games. “The language, and who wins the framing of the language, likely will win the debate.”

Prop 187: Before and After

The widespread belief that there is an “illegal immigrant” problem is a relatively recent phenomenon, according to Joseph Nevins, author of “Operation Gatekeeper: The Rise of the Illegal Alien and the Making of the US-Mexico Boundary.” As Nevins notes, the national platform of the Republican Party didn’t mention a concern over “illegal immigration” until 1986. The Democrats—characteristically late and in a reactive mode—followed suit in 1996, adopting a similar stance as their counterparts.

That’s one of the key patterns to understand in immigration debates over the past 15 years: Republicans take a stand; Democrats respond by agreeing with the critique but offering a slightly less harsh solution; Republicans get most of what they want.

It wasn’t always that way. Back in the 1970s, the Carter administration, under INS Commissioner Leonel Castillo, sent out a directive forbidding the use of “illegal alien” and replaced it with “undocumented workers” or “undocumented alien.” But as Nevins writes, “that linguistic sensitivity quickly disappeared.”

The most significant turning point came in 1994 with the debate over California’s Proposition 187, which barred undocumented immigrants from public schools and non-emergency health care. Today, Prop 187 is best remembered for propelling Republican Gov. Pete Wilson into the national spotlight, but what’s often overlooked is the Democratic response to the immigrant-bashing ballot measure—and the party’s striking departure from Carter’s framing of the debate.

First Democrats ignored Prop 187, then came out against it without much conviction. “I simply do not believe it will work,” California’s Democratic Sen. Diane Feinstein explained. President Bill Clinton, fearing that he could lose the crucial state of California in 1996, responded to Prop 187 by dramatically beefing up border security and promising to crack down on “illegal aliens,” while Feinstein proposed a toll for legal crossers and made repeated visits to the border to highlight her determination in sealing it.

A look at the Los Angeles Times’ archives during the years of this debate shows an eruption in the use of “illegal” and “alien” to describe immigrants themselves. In 1994, the year Californians voted on Prop 187, the Times published 1,411 articles that labeled people “illegal” or “alien,” either as an adjective or, in some cases, as a noun—as in “illegals.” The same year, the Times published just 218 articles that used “undocumented” or “unauthorized” to describe people living in the country without papers.

When the Prop 187 dust settled, the immigration reform landscape had been dramatically altered. The law did not stand up to court challenge and was ultimately thrown out without being implemented. But the framework it ushered in proved lasting.

“The fact is, they agreed on all of the fundamentals with the Republicans,” Nevins says of the Democratic response. “If you accept the framing that your opponents put forth, then you’ve lost the debate. And this helped lay the groundwork for the situation in which we find ourselves today.”

Within two years, Clinton had signed two sweeping bills into law that would do “much of what Prop 187 called for,” according to Andrew Wrote, author of “The Republican Party and Immigration Politics: From Proposition 187 to George W. Bush.” The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act was enforcement-only legislation that, among other things, vastly expanded the grounds for deporting immigrants with legal status. The second bill, the Welfare Reform Act, stripped all non-citizens of many federal benefits. The pragmatist could argue that Clinton got in front of the issue by adopting harsh language and signing the bills; the pragmatist would also have to acknowledge, however, that Clinton got in front of the issue by signing strikingly anti-immigrant legislation.

Fifteen years later, President Obama, like Clinton, is still trying to appeal to the center by proving that he is serious about securing the border. In 2010, he sent 1,200 members of the National Guard to the border and signed a bill allocating $600 million to border enforcement, adding another 1,500 agents along with additional surveillance drones. At the same time, he has deported a record number of immigrants—many of whom have either no criminal record of low-level offenses, such as a traffic violation. And many of the enforcement tools Obama is currently flexing—from partnerships between ICE and local police to the flawed E-Verify program—actually have their roots in Clinton’s 1996 bill.

“Changes on enforcement is the medicine that folks on our side have to accept,” says Jeffrey Parcher, the communications director for the Center for Community Change, which helped coordinate an ultimately unsuccessful grassroots reform campaign in 2010. “The current narrative is that amnesty is some kind of gift, and in exchange for the gift we have to have enforcement. That is not a frame that we agree with, or that we endorse. But in the universe in which enough legislators sit in that box to prevent anything from passing, it’s what we have to work with.”

If true, it’s a deliberately constructed universe. “Amnesty” became a bad word and “illegal” a good one because strategists on both sides of the partisan isle assigned them those meanings.

‘Words That Work’

For supporters of immigration reform, there was some reason for optimism during President George W. Bush’s second term. Despite the House’s passage of HR 4437 in 2005—a harsh bill introduced by Wisconsin Republican James Sensenbrenner that would have turned all unauthorized immigrants into felons—there was momentum among key Republicans for a comprehensive solution.

In 2006, the Senate passed a reform measure that offered a path to citizenship for most undocumented immigrants, provided that they enrolled in English classes and paid fines, as well as back taxes. The citizenship provisions, which did not include unauthorized immigrants who had been in the country for less than two years, were coupled with significant enforcement measures, including the doubling of border patrol agents within five years and more than 800 miles of border fencing and vehicle barriers. Among the bill’s supporters were 23 Republicans.

Vocal members in the House, though, were quick to criticize the bill’s citizenship provisions, limited as they were. ”Amnesty is wrong because it rewards someone for illegal behavior,” said Sensenbrenner. ”And I reject the spin that the senators have been putting on their proposal. It is amnesty.” The House stuck to its talking point, killing the measure and seeing Bush sign instead a bill adding 700 miles of border fencing.

“The right was defining the debate; the amnesty charge just killed us,” Sharry concludes. “Their top line beat our top line. We said fix a broken immigration system and they said amnesty rewards lawbreakers. They had a visceral argument and we had something wonkish. We came to a gunfight with a knife.”

A 2005 memo by GOP strategist Luntz perfectly captures the talking points relied upon by anti-reform Republicans to kill any reform measures. Luntz is known as a word genius for popularizing terms like “death tax” for estate tax and turning oil drilling into the friendlier-sounding “energy exploration.” In his immigration memo, he instructed Republicans to “always refer to people crossing the border illegally as ‘illegal immigrants’—NOT as ‘illegals.’ ”

This was a nod to the long-term danger Republicans faced in demonizing undocumented immigrants: losing the Latino vote. As Luntz wrote, “Republicans have made significant inroads into the Hispanic community over the past decade, and it would be a shame if poorly chosen words and overheated rhetoric were to undermine the credibility the party has built within the community.” (Remember, this was 2005—pre-Tea Party.)

Such niceties aside, Lunzt’s memo was otherwise unrestrained in its attack on undocumented immigrants. In segments he labeled “Words that Work,” he counseled Republicans to emphasize the following points:

Let’s talk about the facts behind illegal immigrants. They do commit crimes. They are more likely to drive uninsured. More likely to clog up hospital waiting rooms. More likely to be involved in anti-social behavior because they have learned that breaking the law brings more benefit to them than abiding by it.

Here was the Prop 187 argument rehashed, with an added pathology—that undocumented immigrants were prone to even broader criminal behavior. And now, one could also throw in the fear of terrorism. Another talking-point section advised Republicans to use the following phrases: “Right now, hundreds of illegal immigrants are crossing the border almost every day. Some of them are part of drug cartels. Some are career criminals. Some may even be terrorists.”

The 25-page document is full of the same “overheated rhetoric” Luntz cautioned against and, importantly, became a playbook for Republicans’ immigration politics moving forward. “If it sounds like amnesty, it will fail,” promised Luntz—and he was right. He was also right to be concerned about just how far his party would go with his vitriolic ideas about brown-skinned immigrants.

But notably, Luntz’s message is also the lesson many pro-reform politicians and advocates took from the 2006-2007 debate. Sharry joined forces with John Podesta at the Center for American Progress and enlisted a crew of top Democratic pollsters to work on messaging. Their first report, “Winning the Immigration Debate,” was based on polling by Guy Molyneux of Peter Hart Associates and shared with politicians in 2008.

The report argued that Democrats should adopt a tougher tone when discussing reform. Instead of “offering a path to citizenship,” which sounded to some like a giveaway, Democrats should use more coercive terms: immigrants would be required to pay taxes, learn English and pass criminal background checks. As the report states: “This message places the focus where voters want it, on what’s best for the United States, not what we can/should do for illegal immigrants.”

“Rather than educate [the public], you can convince them to do the right thing if you call it a requirement,” Cecilia Munoz of the National Council of La Raza, told the Huffington Post. Her statement amounted to a strategic retreat: Democrats ought to focus less on challenging anti-immigrant claims (educating) and instead use messages that implicitly reinforce those claims (co-opting).

Sharry and Podesta also enlisted Stanley Greenberg to hone the message. Greenberg, a former Clinton pollster and influential Democratic strategist, was initially skeptical: in 2006 and 2007, his polling had shown that when Democrats discussed immigration reform they were vulnerable to attack. But the new framework, when presented to center and center-right voters, seemed to diffuse the amnesty charge.

Another person involved in the framing was Drew Westen, a psychology professor at Emory University and director of Westen Strategies, a messaging consulting firm, who was brought in by Media Matters for America. One of his conclusion’s echoed Schumer: Democrats should drop the words “undocumented worker” from their lexicon and instead use “illegal immigrant.” Westen, who didn’t respond to requests for an interview, told Politico that his advice to progressives is, “If the language appears fine to you, it is probably best not to use it. You are an activist, and by definition, you are out of the mainstream.”

After the polls and focus groups, the messaging was in place. Democrats should lead with border security and enforcement, frame the legalization process as a requirement, and call people “illegal immigrants” instead of “undocumented.” It was to be tough but not “overly punitive”—and it was notable in that it made no reference to any positive attributes undocumented immigrants might bring to the country.

Not everyone was pleased with the new framework. “This is oppressive language—punitive and restrictive,” says Oscar Chacon, executive director of the National Alliance of Latin American & Caribbean Communities. According to Chacon, the 2008 report was “nothing but an effort by D.C. groups to justify their views with a public opinion survey” and it highlighted the Democrats’ tendency to “accept more and more of the premises of the anti-immigrant lobby.”

“We should be trying to change the way people think about the situation,” contends Chacon, “instead of finding a way to make anti-immigrant sentiments tolerable.”

Even among people involved in the Beltway Democrats’ polling project there was dissension. “It’s one thing to say that enforcement has to be a part of the solution, and another to say we have to call people illegal,” says David Mermin of Lake Research Partners, who has been polling on immigration for a decade and worked with Sharry on honing the message. “We think there’s a more nuanced way of saying it.”

Journalism’s Objective Bias

Whatever nuance is possible, it’s increasingly missing from the public conversation on immigration.

A major turning point in news media’s own language came in the wake of the September 11 attacks, as editors for the first time looked closely at how their publications described immigrants. Until then, the Associated Press Stylebook—a language bible for newsrooms—didn’t have any entries related to unauthorized immigrants. But in 2003, reflecting government concerns about border security following 9/11, the AP determined it needed to come with up a specific term. According to AP Deputy Standards Editor David Minthorn, the organization underwent extensive discussions, which included “reporters specializing in immigration and ethnic issues who are versed in the positions of all groups,” as well as an overview of government and legal terminology. The AP settled on “illegal immigrant” as the “neutral” and preferred term, while noting that “illegal alien” and the shortened term of “illegal” should be avoided. Interestingly, that’s precisely the message Luntz suggested in 2005.

The AP’s decision locked in an industry standard for so-called neutral language on unauthorized immigration—and it focused on the person, not just the act. The Los Angeles Times’ style book, for instance, calls for “illegal immigrant” as “the preferred, neutral, unbiased term that will work in almost all uses,” as assistant managing editor Henry Furhmann recently explained to the paper’s ombudsman. As a consequence, that “unbiased” language dominates news coverage of big immigration battles. In 2010, as Congress debated the DREAM Act and immigration became a leading issue in midterm elections, four of the five largest-circulation newspapers published a combined 1,549 articles that referred to people as “illegal” or “alien” in the headline or at least once in the text of the story; they published just 363 articles that referred to “undocumented” or “unauthorized” immigrants. (The four papers, in order of 2011 circulation numbers, include USA Today, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post; we did not search the archives of the Wall Street Journal, which is the largest paper, because it does not make the full text of its archives available on the database we used.)

In recent years, there has been push back on the criminalizing framework from journalists of color. In 2006 the National Association of Hispanic Journalists launched a campaign pressuring media agencies to stop using the term “illegal” to describe unauthorized immigrants. It was a time of raucous protest, with millions of immigrants across the country marching against Sensenbrenner’s draconian House bill. (Notably, the bill’s title—the Border Protection, Anti-Terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act—perfectly captured the conflation of undocumented immigrants with terrorists that became common after 9/11.)

“Politicians and others were taking the rhetoric of the anti-immigrant groups, and using ‘illegal’ as a noun,” says Ivan Roman, NAHJ’s executive director. “We don’t like the term illegal alien and we prefer not to use illegal immigrant—we prefer undocumented immigrant. And we think the news media needs to think critically about the terminology they use.”

A more recent campaign, Drop the I-word, is being coordinated by’s publisher, the Applied Research Center. The campaign, which asks news organizations to not use the term “illegal” when discussing unauthorized migrants, finds inspiration from Holocaust survivor Ellie Wiesel’s phrase “no person is illegal,” which he coined during the 1980s Central American sanctuary movement. (The British were the first to use “illegal” as a noun to refer to people, when describing Jews in the 1930s who entered Palestine without official permission).

“Getting rid of the i-word is about our society asserting the idea that migrants are human beings deserving of respect and basic human rights,” says Mónica Novoa, coordinator of the campaign. She says she has been disappointed with the number of otherwise sensitive journalists who continue to use the word, which she argues “points to how normalized the language has become.”

And as the language has normalized, the broader public dialogue has grown increasingly harsh—and dangerous.

Part of the shift can be seen in the way formerly moderate Republicans have begun navigating political waters using the Tea Party as their compass.

In 2007, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham was adamant in his support of reform, arguing that, “We’re not going to scapegoat people. We’re going to tell the bigots to shut up.” By last year, however, he’d moved to discussing an overhaul of the 14th Amendment to end birthright citizenship for U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants. Sen. John McCain has undergone a similar transformation: once a key proponent of reform, earlier this year he blamed wildfires in Arizona on undocumented immigrants, an absurd claim quickly refuted by the U.S. Forrest Service. Longtime hardliners like Rep. Steve King of Iowa, who has called immigration a “slow moving Holocaust” and compared immigrants to livestock, are now finding more friends in Congress.

The new batch of Tea Party members openly use threatening images of brown-skinned immigrants to rally their base—in just the way Luntz warned against as he crafted the language politicians now hurl at immigrants. Sharon Angle, in an infamous commercial from her 2010 campaign against Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, featured Latinos (“illegals”) sneaking along a border fence “putting our safety at risk” and labeled Reid as “the best friend an illegal alien ever had.”

Angle lost, due in large measure to the Latino vote. But her campaign waged an unexpectedly meaningful threat to the long-term senator and Democratic leader. More and more people seem to believe that, with “illegals putting our safety at risk,” drastic words (and actions) are needed.

In March, Kansas State Rep. Virgil Peck, during a debate about the use of gunmen in helicopters to kill wild hogs, suggested that such a tactic could also be a solution “to our illegal immigration problem.” His statement was followed by Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama, who made repeated calls for doing “anything short of shooting” undocumented immigrants.

In November 2008, that’s just what a group of Long Island, N.Y., teenagers did when they stabbed Marcello Lucero to death. Lucero, an undocumented immigrant from Ecuador, was the target of what the teens called “beaner hopping”—in which they roamed the streets searching for Latinos to attack. In the wake of the murder it was discovered that other immigrants had been beaten but not come forward due to fears about their immigration status. Another streak of violence targeting Latinos occurred in New York City’s Staten Island in 2010, which included 10 attacks within a six-month period.

As the situation in Long Island attests, taking an accurate stock of hate crimes is a difficult task, as many undocumented immigrants are hesitant to report crimes to authorities. Existing statistics do point to an increase in attacks on Latinos during much of the last decade: from 2003-2007 the FBI reported hate crimes against Latinos increased by 40 percent, and last month California released data showing anti-Latino crimes jumped by nearly 50 percent from the previous year.

For Novoa, these types of statistics highlight the urgency behind the call to stop using “illegal” to describe unauthorized immigrants. “We need to change the current debate. It’s hate-filled, racially charged, and inhumane—and it’s driving up violence.”

And all of this points to perhaps the greatest weakness in the Democratic response to Luntz’s message. When one side is framing immigrants as criminals and potential terrorists, with some “joking” about slaughtering them like hogs, the other side likely needs to do more than co-opt poll-tested talking points. There’s more at stake than votes. The Democratic strategy also holds a contradiction at its core: The more focus that is placed on the illegality of immigrants and the problems they cause, the less it makes sense to offer a path to legalization.

“All of that [polling] work is based on an assumption that this is a policy argument,” Sharry acknowledges. “This is looking more like a front in a culture war, in which a rabid, well organized part of the Republican Party wants to expel millions of brown people from this country.”

Reprinted with permission of

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