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We need to change the very language we use to talk about immigrants

An immigrant can no more be "illegal" than a teacher or a politician. To pretend otherwise dehumanises them, writes Chitra Nagarajan.

The "go home" van. Photograph: Gov.uk

Immigration has rarely been far from newspaper pages in recent times.  A report, released last week by the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, looked at the 43 million words that made up the content dealing with migrants and migration in all 20 of Britain’s main national daily and Sunday newspapers between 2010 and 2012.  It found that the most common word used to describe "immigrants" across broadsheet, mid-market and tabloid newspapers was "illegal". This far outnumbered any other word. Water based metaphors such as "flood",  "influx" and "wave" were frequently used to describe "immigrants" and "migrants".  

These results fit our current political discourse. We are living in times of severe hostility towards immigrants. The language used shows just how normalised these views have become. I grew up hearing "go home Paki" and seeing those signs everywhere in Oldham in the early 90s when I first arrived in England. I never would have thought it would be the government, not far right racist groups, who would be telling people to "go home" twenty years later.  

The language used by newspapers reflects but also shapes these narratives. Standard headline in the past few weeks have been The Independent’s “Home Office may have broken the law in 'racist' hunt for illegal immigrants – and may have questioned domestic violence victims”, The Mirror’s “Exposed: Illegal immigrants in police and NHS jobs...and there was even one in the treasury” and The Daily Mail’s “How Russia deals with illegal immigrants”. It is telling that The Independent puts racist within brackets to describe government action disproportionately targeting black people but not the word illegal to describe people.

That illegal is most commonly used to describe immigrants is hardly surprising, but it is deeply problematic. Using "illegal immigrant" frames the debate from the perspective of the politicians – and those who are the most virulently anti-immigration at that – rather than the viewpoint of the populace, let alone the ones of immigrant backgrounds. As with the use of "bogus" before "asylum seeker", the qualifier ends up dominating the noun so that the idea of "illegal" and "immigrant" become synonymous. From the news coverage alone, we would never know that the numbers of immigrants with legal status are far greater than those without it. 

It also places the migrant populations of the UK outside the debate. Most of the public discourse on migration lacks the voices of those of immigrant backgrounds. It is not surprising that coverage of immigration is largely profoundly negative in tone as a result, dominated by the thought of hordes of "illegal immigrants" amassing at the shores. If anything positive is written, it is usually from the standpoint of the positive contributions migration makes to British society, seen as starting from a monocultural base, rather than looking at the experiences of immigrants themselves or acknowledging the long history of immigration to these islands. 

In the USA, where intense debate about immigration is also a recurring theme in politics, this is slowly changing. As a result of mobilisation and organising, many news organisations have changed their style guides.  The use of "illegal alien", "illegal immigrant", "illegal worker" or "illegal migrant", which made up 82 per cent of the language used in 1996, dropped to a combined 57 per cent in 2013. 

The way that all immigrants are seen and treated needs to change. One small step would be to change the language used, and reflect that it is the act that may be illegal, not the person. The phrase "illegal immigrant" has come to be normalised, used as a matter of course without anyone thinking about what it implies. I cannot think of the word being used to describe a whole category of people in any other instance. When was the last time you heard, talked or wrote about "illegal politicians" or "illegal teachers" when referring to politicians who take bribes or teachers who have sex with their students? They are called corrupt or sex offenders, words that describe the situation factually rather than criminalising a complete class of people. Here the facts are that some people have not been or are no longer authorised by the state to be in the country, not that they are "illegal".

That people talk about immigrants differently is an indication that our society does not believe immigrants have the right to exist. It is a symptom of the contempt towards immigrants that is filtering into everyday consciousness. It serves to decontextualise, takes away nuance and means that questions that seek out the truth of what is actually happening are not asked. The rhetoric of "illegal immigrant" becomes internalised rather than the realities of the lives of those without status in the country examined. Moreover, it means that news coverage, meant to be objective, takes a position on immigration, sometimes subconsciously in ways that journalists themselves did not intend to take.  Calling people "illegal" takes away their humanity and says much about a society at ease with doing so.