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.

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.

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

Chitra Nagarajan has worked to promote and protect the human rights of women in China, the United Kingdom, the United States and west Africa. She is an active member of Go Feminist and Black Feminists, and tweets as @chitranagarajan.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

What is the New Hampshire primary, and why does it matter?

Although the contest has proved less influential in recent years, the New Hampshire primary is still a crucial event.

While the Iowa caucuses are the first electoral event in the US’s presidential process, the New Hampshire primary is the candidates' most important early test before the action explodes across the rest of the country.

The stakes are high. If the nominations aren’t decided soon, the campaigns will be damned to a marathon of costly state primaries and caucuses; New Hampshire is their first best chance to avoid that fate. But it didn’t always work this way.

Primaries only became the key element of the nomination process relatively recently. Until the postwar era, presidential candidates were chosen at the national conventions in the summer: in the run-up to the 1960 election, future president John F Kennedy famously entered only one primary (West Virginia’s) to prove that a Roman Catholic could win a Protestant state.

It was only after the turmoil of the 1968 nomination, widely perceived as an establishment fix, that the McGovern-Fraser Commission changed the Democratic party’s rules to end the power of the “smoke-filled room” over the nominating process, prompting many states to adopt meaningful primaries for both parties' nominations.

First in the nation

Unlike caucuses, which generally are used in smaller states that would rather not pay for full-scale ballots, primaries are secret-ballot elections that allow voters to choose who will be their preferred nominee. But not all primaries are the same.

The parties sometimes hold their votes on the same day, as they do in New Hampshire, or on different ones. A primary may be open (allowing any voter to register a preference) or closed (allowing only pre-registered party supporters to vote). New Hampshire has a mixed system which allows voters to register in a primary on the day before voting without declaring a party affiliation.

That means that while all voters registered with a party must vote in that party’s ballot, the New Hampshire result often hinges on these unaffiliated voters. Because they can vote in whichever ballot they like and can register so close to primary day, the state is notoriously difficult to poll.

New Hampshire has cemented its first-in-the-nation status by passing a law that requires its lawmakers to move the state’s primary to pre-empt any other state’s, no matter how early. That means it’s traditionally been not just an important indicator of how candidates are faring, but a way of winnowing the field and generating or killing funding. Candidates who perform poorly generally find their access to money suddenly dries up.

The arguments against New Hampshire’s outsize role are many. Like Iowa, it’s hardly representative of the US as a whole, being a small state with an overwhelmingly white population. And while (unlike Iowa) it has no powerful evangelical Christian element, it retains a very distinctive tradition of small-town New England politics that demand a particular kind of face-to-face, low-to-the-ground campaigning.

But this time around, other factors have cut into New Hampshire’s significance.

On the Republican side, the primary’s winnowing role was in large part pre-empted when the TV networks holding debates allowed only the higher-polling candidates on stage, effectively creating a two-tier system that tarred lower-polling candidates as also-rans long before voting began. Meanwhile, the financial calculations have been transformed by campaign finance reforms that allow for almost unlimited outside fundraising – allowing candidates to build up the reserves they need to withstand a humiliating defeat.

Nonetheless, a truly surprising New Hampshire result could still change everything.

Shuffling the deck

New Hampshire hasn’t always chosen the winner in either the nomination contests or the general election. But it has provided more than its share of political upsets and key turning points, from persuading Lyndon Johnson not to stand again in 1968 to resurrecting the candidacies of Hillary Clinton and John McCain in 2008.

The incremental campaigns for the nominations are all about the perception of momentum, and a notional front-runner can be dislodged or destabilised by a poor performance early on. That’s especially true in this year’s cycle, in which both major parties are grappling with huge surges of support for outsider, anti-establishment candidates.

Mainstream Republicans have spent months trying to end Donald Trump’s noisy domination of their crowded field. Trump was indeed defeated in Iowa, but not by a moderating force: instead, it was radical conservative Ted Cruz who overturned him.

Cruz is loathed by the party establishment, and he stands little chance of appealing to mainstream voters. Marco Rubio’s strong showing in Iowa briefly made him something of a standard-bearer for the party’s moderates, but a disastrous turn at the last debate before New Hampshire has thrown the future of his candidacy into doubt.

The primary will also reveal who, if any, of the more moderate Republican candidates – among them Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Chris Christie – will survive. While Bush has a massive funding advantage (albeit with precious little to show for it), Kasich and Christie both need a strong showing in New Hampshire to reinvigorate their financial reserves.

On the Democratic side, the key question is whether Bernie Sanders can make good on the surprising energy of his populist, grassroots challenge to Hillary Clinton. He is currently the heavy favourite in New Hampshire: even if Clinton somehow pulls off a miracle win there as she did in 2008, the closeness of the race is already stimulating both campaigns' national organisation and spending. And with what could be a long race between them heating up, the two’s growing mutual acrimony may yet start to undermine the Democrats' national appeal.

Gillian Peele Associate Professor in Politics and Tutorial Fellow at the University of Oxford.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.