It’s tougher than you think to say whom the Trump administration is locking in cages at the Mexico-U.S. border.
Are they migrants, immigrants, or emigrants? Refugees, asylees, or nationals? Aliens? Illegals?
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Or do you not refer to them as people at all?
The word you pick says a lot about what you think of them. And it has life-or-death implications for how they’re treated.
Migrant, immigrant, and emigrant all come from the Latin migrare, which means to change one’s residence or condition, and most reputable news sources will use these variations to reference the people crossing the border. But when we speak about immigration or emigration, we tend to refer to a one-directional, cross-border movement. Latin speakers, on the other hand, used migrare and its variations to cover everything from moving to a new state to going next door to borrow some eggs.
Contrary to migrant’s common present-day usage, that back-and-forth paints a more accurate picture of what’s going on. From 2010 to 2015, almost 40 percent of U.S.-Mexican migration was going from the United States to Mexico. It’s a fluid movement that’s way more linguistically accurate than you’d think.
Whether they’re immigrants or emigrants depends on where they’re going to or from. Back to Latin roots, immigration is going in; emigration is going out. You can immigrate from Mexico to the United States, but you can’t just “immigrate from Mexico.” Likewise, you can’t “emigrate to the U.S.”; if ICE doesn’t stop you, the grammar police will.
Where migration refers to movement, the other words that are too often used interchangeably are laden with much more political and judgmental meanings.
Refugee seems the most harmless on its face — taking refuge in a place of safety. But in the late 18th century, refugee became synonymous with fugitive, which carries connotations of fleeing justice, and with which it shares the Latin root fugere (to flee). Thus refugee assumes an impression of lawlessness. The fact that the government department housing the children at the border is called the Office of Refugee Resettlement gives you some idea about how troublingly it views those children.
Asylee (one who seeks asylum) and national are problematic too. Asylum’s first definition labels the asylee a criminal, while the noun national gets into where a person’s allegiance lies. Alien, bizarrely, doesn’t cite extraterrestrials until its third definition, while the first and second definitions refer to people. But anyone who’s seen Independence Day knows that no aliens have a positive connotation, and everyone has seen Independence Day. (Fortunately, references to “legal aliens” are pretty much limited to Sting.)
That is, of course, when they refer to migrants at all. If your news consumption this week has highlighted the inhumane conditions that migrants face at the border, you probably haven’t been reading foxnews.com, which spills considerably more ink on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (three stories in eight hours the other day) than it does on children in cages, to whom references are relatively scarce.
But even in the best coverage, the word migrant is suspect. When you refer to people by what they’re doing — “one that migrates” — rather than who they are, it’s much easier to dehumanize them — to dismiss their needs for soap, showers, or mattresses. Instead of “children,” you call them “so-called minors,” as new Customs and Border Protection head Mark Morgan did, and you can get away with saying things like “I’ve looked at their eyes … and I’ve said that is a soon-to-be MS-13 gang member.”
Once you’ve used language to strip away a person’s humanity, you can take whatever else you want.