Politics, in part, is the art of persuasion. Language matters in all of our policy debates. How politicians and pundits frame an argument or a debate – how we use our words to shape public opinion – has tremendous consequences on our lives and the lives of our countrymen.
Which is why our public discourse is so nuts.
Hands down, the most consequential debate of the moment is immigration. Who gets to come? Who gets to stay? The questions (and answers) get to the heart, as our immediate past president often liked to say, of “who we are.”
Americans are fond of Emma Lazarus’s poem: “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” But poetry does not make for sensible immigration policy.
Turns out, “who we are” is a matter of some dispute. America’s founders had some things to say on the subject. When Congress debated the nation’s first naturalization law in 1790, James Madison said we should “hold out as many inducements as possible for the worthy part of mankind to come and settle amongst us.” (Note the qualifying “worthy.”)
But why? “Not merely to swell the catalogue of people,” Madison said, but rather “to increase the wealth and strength of the community; and those who acquire the rights of citizenship, without adding to the strength or wealth of the community are not the people we are in want of.” In other words, we have enough native-born freeloaders – we don’t need to import any more.
You might say, “This isn’t 1790.” Sure. And neither is it 1900, when the United States accepted practically all comers (though more than a few were turned back at Ellis Island). By 1925, Congress decided to put a stop to it. The intervening 40-year pause gave newcomers a chance to fully assimilate into the culture. Of course, that was when “assimilation” was not a dirty word.
We’re 50 years into another era of mass immigration, and this time is different, too. Americans used to talk about what immigrants owed to their new nation. Now we’re talking seriously about what the nation owes to immigrants who broke the law to get here.
In a brilliant rhetorical stroke, Democrats and Chamber of Commerce Republicans have named an entire class of foreigners living here illegally – some 3.2 million people – as “Dreamers.” How lovely! The name comes from the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which has been banging around Congress since 2001. The bill would set up a multistep process to help the children of illegal aliens qualify for legal permanent U.S. residency.
Right now, the question is what to do with the roughly 800,000 enrollees in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) program. Democrats want them on the path to permanent residency. President Donald Trump and Republicans are willing to play ball, in exchange for a few things, such as an end to the diversity visa lottery program and so-called chain migration. Oh, and money to build the wall, of course.
“Chain migration” or “family reunification” are two more great examples of how language matters in this debate. Jonathan Alter of the Daily Beast on Monday tweeted: “Note to Democrats and media: Do not … ever use ‘chain migration.’ … The proper phrase for the provision, according to the Immigration Act of 1965, is ‘family reunification.’ ”
If you’re going to be a stickler about it, the accurate, legal term is “illegal alien,” as opposed to the euphemisms Democrats and the media prefer.
Fact is, “family reunification” obscures more than it reveals, while “chain migration” accurately depicts what happens when a green card holder sponsors his family members – could be his parents, could be his second cousins – to move here.
It’s hard to be charitable when we hear illegal immigrants demanding the right to stay. Sorry, but they have no right to demand anything. Americans are fond of Emma Lazarus’ poem, “The New Colossus”: “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”
They’re lovely words, too. But poetry does not make for sensible immigration policy. If we’re not careful, “who we are” may be something very different – and not necessarily better – than what we want be.