Friday, July 6, 2012

Open letter to Ruben Navarrette in response to "'Illegal immigrant' is the uncomfortable truth"


I am the Editor of and have spent a lot of time thinking about vocabulary like “undocumented worker” and “illegal immigrant.”  The reason I am writing is to raise two points you missed in your column today about such terms.

First, it’s the overuse on the immigration beat of the term “illegal immigrant” – and any other label of a person based in their wrongdoing – that is the real misuse of language in this context.  I’ve read a lot of stories about breaking the law, and it’s the reporters writing immigration stories who much more frequently slap a label on the perpetrators and repeat that label throughout the story.  I don’t care if it’s “illegal immigrant” or “undocumented worker” or “unvisaed wayfarer;” the fact that a label of the person is going to be used at all is just not seen as much on other beats, and even when other beats do use similar labels, they’re used much more infrequently as a ratio of total word count.  I have a number of examples (I’ve been looking at this issue for a long time), but feel free to scan the news yourself to see this pattern born out.  So the question is, why is “illegal immigrant” or any similar label appropriate 10 times per story (just to throw out a number) when similar labels are apparently appropriate only once or twice per story outside the immigration context?

The second point you missed is whether violation of a law is necessarily a wrong.  I get your point about being from a law-abiding family; I identify with that sentiment.  I am a lawyer, and it is part of my job to ensure that people follow the law.  I am religious about following the speed limit on the highway.  But clandestine crossing or overstaying a visa might not always be a moral wrong.  Start with the point Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed in his Letter from Birmingham Jail: not all violations of laws are equivalent to wrongdoing.  Could it be wrong of the U.S. to incorporate into its laws a fresh start over time – without undoing or paying for the original act - to just about every wrongdoer except the illegal immigrant?    Something that starts out as wrongdoing can, over time, be seen as nothing of the sort.  No one calls the victor in an adverse possession case a wrongdoer or former wrongdoer; the circumstances of the original trespass have been transformed – sanitized – ab initio.  I’m not sure we have to wait for comprehensive immigration reform to decide whether – in our sight – time transforms the original offense.

Thanks for considering these thoughts, and for always writing cogently and with conviction about the immigration issue.

Best regards,

John Lamb

Updated to add: Ruben Navarrette responded to my e-mail within an hour. He said he would grant me the first point and that "[i]t's worth looking at."

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