Saturday, May 26, 2007

Undocumented? Illegals? What, what are these people?

The Daily Dish brings something about the language limitations that confound the good people who discuss the issue of illegal immigration and its many discontents in America today:

"Undocumented may be the most decent word that's available to us, but something was lost in that translation, too. It isn't just that undocumented adds a bureaucratic note, but that it focuses on the government's records rather than the immigrants themselves. Visitors who overstay their visas may not be undocumented in the strict sense of the term, which is why the INS ultimately decided to stay with "illegal."[3] But those people are still without papers in the more suggestive European sense, people who have to live without any official status in the shadow of a modern state.

Aliens, illegals, even undocumented -- over the past hundred years, it has been in the nature of the language of immigration to suppress the human side of the story. Yet language can't wholly obscure those realities. As the Swiss writer Max Frisch wrote in 1965 about the European experience with immigration, "We called for a labor force, but it was human beings that came."

This is not trivial pursuit. I firmly believe that we need to use as accurate a language as possible if we wish to minimize the negative fallout which inevitably will follow when we try to describe such very fluid situations.

We know what we feel but we don't always manage to translate that directly into words. I think it is impossible to calibrate our words to the notions that form in our minds so as to avoid completely any misunderstanding. The poets are the most adept at keeping close to the nexus of thought and feelings which is why we are often made breathless when reading a particular poem that is so compatible with something we feel or think. But most of us aren't poets and many of us are too lazy to bother with accuracy, which results in sloppy hyperbolic analogies or making the kind od galactically-stupid statements I like to post here every now and then.

Even the author of this article I'm citing has not bothered to be too accurate in his historical analogies.

"It's only your immigration status that can qualify you as being an illegal person, or that can earn you the honor of being "an illegal" all by itself.[2] That use of illegal as a noun actually goes back a long ways. The British coined it in the 1930's to describe Jews who entered Palestine without official permission, and it has been used ever since as a way of reducing individuals to their infractions."

The Brits were not inhabiting Palestine, only managing it, in accordance with the mandate they had received from the League of Nations. They were not mandated to suppress immigration but rather to facilitate it through regulations and coordination with the Jewish Leadership. And most importantly, most of those "illegals" were fleeing a Europe that had become too menacing for their survival. So, the Brits coined an illegal term to designate Jewish immigrants into Palestine and Nunberg cites their example as spawning a precedent. I wonder what role indeed did that term play in the choice of the American government to name those millions-strong individuals who came looking for work without their host state's permission "illegal aliens".

Still, it is a neat little theory, isn't it, to have managed to sneak in the equivalence between thousands of persecuted Jews escaping the horrors of Europe and millions of Mexicans looking for a better work market? As well as, of course, the implied similarities between Imperialist Britain and the USA?

Time ro revisit George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language"...


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