Latina Lista: News from the Latinx perspective > Palabra Final > Immigration > Obama explains why he used the term “illegal immigrant”

Obama explains why he used the term “illegal immigrant”

LatinaLista — The day after Obama made the rounds of the Sunday talk shows, a fellow blogger sent an email and asked what I had written about Obama’s appearance on Univision’s Al Punto program with Jorge Ramos.
I replied, “Nothing.” In fact, I hadn’t even watched it. Why bother, I thought. He’s only going to deliver the same answers to the same questions: When will there be an immigration reform bill? Healthcare for undocumented immigrants?
Yet, after scanning a partial transcript of the Ramos-Obama interview, it turns out there was one question that Ramos asked him that strayed from the usual script. It challenged the President to explain himself — and it had nothing to do with healthcare.

The question had to do with why the President was changing course and using the term “illegal immigrant” instead of “undocumented immigrants,” the term he did use during the campaign.
(Partial transcript courtesy of Immigration Impact)

Jorge Ramos
Now, in your speech to Congress you used the words “illegal immigrants.” However, and I remember very clearly, during the campaign you were very careful to use the words “undocumented immigrants”. Why the change? You said words matter. Now, why do you choose to use the language that is being used by…
President Obama
Well, keep in mind…
Jorge Ramos
…those who criticize immigrants.
President Obama
Well, keep in mind what I was addressing. I was addressing misinformation by the other side that was engaging in scare tactics. So I was essentially quoting them. I was saying, “for those of you who are saying that illegal immigrants are going to be covered under this plan,” I said that’s not true. Right? So I’m using their language because I was addressing the misinformation that they are providing. And I was speaking directly to an audience, the American people, who because of this misinformation, I think actually were very responding often times in a negative way.

The President’s exact quote that night was:

There are also those who claim that our reform effort will insure illegal immigrants…

Looking at what the President told Ramos during his interview and reading the line from his speech above, it seems pretty obvious, now, that Obama was using the language best understood by all those Joe Wilsons out there.
From Wilson’s response, it’s a language that isn’t just understood but connotes a much deeper and negative meaning that triggers spontaneous vitriolic reaction — and which probably is best left to be used in speeches in the halls of Congress where more restraint and civility are practiced than in any town hall meeting or online forum.
Can there be any further doubt just how destructive these two words are?

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  • laura
    September 24, 2009 at 5:44 pm

    Marisa, you nailed it (again). Words matter enormously. In this case, they shed light on President Obama’s priorities. As he knows exactly how harmful the expression “illegal immigrants” is to all Latina/os targeted by hate speech and hate crimes, his use of this expression demonstrates that mollifying admirers of Representative Wilson is more important to him than justice for undocumented workers.
    We need to learn this lesson quickly and be prepared for the actions that follow from his priorities.
    Anyone who still expects justice for immigrants from this White House needs to think long and hard.

  • Swany
    September 24, 2009 at 8:00 pm

    “…….Obama was using the language best understood by all those Joe Wilsons out there.”
    Beware that there are far more non-Latino citizens that believe illegal immigrant is perfectly acceptable, and Latino complaints seem to have no affect. Latinos didn’t get upset about the term until they became aware that they were losing their case for illegal immigrants on the merits. The term “illegal immigrant” became an irritant and a win even on a seemingly insignificant issue similar to Shakespeare’s naming of the “rose” would have been a win after so many major losses. It’s sad, because their rants on this issue have fallen on deaf ears.
    Obama was using the language of people who are not so biased and politically correct as to engage in comical self-delusion. I find it ludicrous that Latinos think that the people they have to win over are going to be influenced by simple semantics. It’s hard to take Latinos seriously when they can’t accept the lexicon of the vast majority of Americans.

  • Shane
    September 24, 2009 at 8:32 pm

    I have been reading this blog for over a year now, but have never commented on anything.
    the post on this particular incident i feel warrants a response and a question.
    While I agree that Obama’s choice of words were in stark contrast to his previous statement, I feel that Mr. Addison Graves “Joe” Wilson, Sr.would have yelled out anyways if the Pres said “illegal immigrant” or “undocumented immigrant”.
    I am curious, is the term “illegal immigrant” becoming a racial slur to Latino/a’s in this country?

  • Marisa Treviño
    September 25, 2009 at 9:14 am

    Shane, the term is seen by many in the Latino community to be a racial slur in the way the term has been adapted and used. It has even been recognized by the National Association of Hispanic Journalists as a term grammatically incorrect and demeaning when referring to Hispanic immigrants. As such, the NAHJ has asked newsrooms across the country to stop using the term. However, that has fallen on deaf ears.

  • Grace
    September 25, 2009 at 9:38 am

    “It has even been recognized by the National Association of Hispanic Journalists as a term grammatically incorrect and demeaning when referring to Hispanic immigrants.”
    It’s demeaning only because it doesn’t put illegal aliens in a favorable light, but it never was never meant to be. The people who use it are justifiably angry with those who would violate our immigration laws, so changing the name to undocumented immigrants accomplishes nothing.
    Of course it’s internationally accepted that the NAHJ is the last word on English grammar, so everyone is to fall in lock-step with their pronouncements. Unfortunately for them, the words “illegal alien” is widely documented as valid by the federal government and the rest of the modern world, the feelings of illegal aliens and their supporters notwithstanding.

  • cookie
    September 25, 2009 at 12:14 pm

    Still waiting for a logical reason that illegal immigrant or even illegal alien is unacceptable to many Latinos. The only thing I can think of is that since most illegals are of their own ethnic kind that they don’t want to call attention to the immigration laws that they broke.
    I also asked in a prior post which Marisa refused to post “should we then call bank robbers unathorized withdrawers”. I mean just how PC are we going to get with this nonsense? I say call a spade, a spade and if you don’t like it, tough. When we start telling the president himself that he can’t use proper terms in his speeches because it might offend law breakers and their aiders and abettors something is definately wrong in this country.

  • laura
    September 25, 2009 at 10:40 pm

    Shane, I completely agree that Mr. Addison Graves “Joe” Wilson, Sr.would have yelled out anyways if the Pres said “illegal immigrant” or “undocumented immigrant.”
    However, words matter.
    For example, women have insisted for years that the person who chairs a panel not be called “chairman,” but “chair” or another gender-neutral expression, because the image that is evoked by our brains when we hear the word “chairman” is always the image of a man in authority, never the image of a woman in authority.
    Likewise, the image evoked in our brains by the word “illegal” is of a criminal, for example someone stealing something. What is not evoked is the image of a person who lost their livelihood in their home country (due to policies of US corporations and of the US government, such as NAFTA) and knows that low-skilled jobs are offered in the United States, but visas to work in these jobs are not offered in the local US consulate. So to support their family, and often their parents, this person crosses the border outside a checkpoint and lives and works here without a visa.
    That is the reality, just like a woman chairing a panel is often the reality. Neither of these realities are evoked when we use discriminatory expressions.
    Workers here without visas suffer very much from the term “illegal.” It stigmatizes them as bad people, while all they want is to work in peace – work extremely hard – and support their families.
    A friend of mine who is undocumented saw a picture in the newspaper of a young woman, a student, with a sign at a demonstration. The sign said “No Human Being Is Illegal.” He was so happy when he heard the translation.
    So please, Shane, do not use the expression “illegal immigrant.” And when you have a chance, ask an undocumented person how they feel about it.

  • shane
    September 26, 2009 at 4:27 pm

    um i definitely do not use the term “illegal immigrant” with any ire. I feel that I am in the middle of the road on the issue. Yet as a grad student who does not happen to know any undocumented immigrants, i feel i need to ask these kind of questions to further learn about this highly important issue.
    I was just curious about the evolution of the term and its use and implication to those who read this blog.

  • Mark
    September 26, 2009 at 6:29 pm

    “Workers here without visas suffer very much from the term “illegal.” It stigmatizes them as bad people, while all they want is to work in peace – work extremely hard – and support their families.”
    Easy solution, don’t come or go home. What did you expect, the welcome wagon?

  • Marisa Treviño
    September 27, 2009 at 9:53 am

    Shane, I applaud your initiative to find out for yourself. If I may, I would recommend that you download from iTunes a show titled “Immigration” produced by 30 Days and it appeared in their Season 2. It’s about a guy who happened to be Cuban-American and a Minuteman who lived with an undocumented family for 30 days. It was very eye-opening for him and viewers. Hopefully, this will shed some additional light for you on this topic. I believe the download is free.

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