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.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Tony Blair might be a toxic figure - but his influence endures

Politicians at home and abroad are borrowing from the former prime minister's playbook. 

On 24 May at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, a short distance from where he once governed, Tony Blair resurfaced for a public discussion. Having arrived on an overnight flight, he looked drawn and puffy-eyed but soon warmed to his theme: a robust defence of liberal globalisation. He admitted, however, to bafflement at recent events in the world. "I thought I was pretty good at politics. But I look at politics today and I’m not sure I understand it."

Blair lost power in the summer of 2007. In the ensuing nine years, he lost reputation. His business ventures and alliances with autocrats have made him a pariah among both the public and his party. A YouGov poll published last year found that 61 per cent of voters regarded Blair as an electoral liability, while just 14 per cent viewed him as an asset. In contrast, John Major, whom he defeated by a landslide in 1997, had a neutral net rating of zero. It is ever harder to recall that Blair won not one general election (he is the only living Labour leader to have done so) but three.

His standing is likely to diminish further when the Iraq inquiry report is published on 6 July. Advance leaks to the Sunday Times suggest that he will be censured for allegedly guaranteeing British military support to the US a year before the invasion. Few minds on either side will be changed by the 2.6 million-word document. Yet its publication will help enshrine Iraq as the defining feature of a legacy that also includes the minimum wage, tax credits, Sure Start, devolution and civil partnerships.

Former leaders can ordinarily rely on their parties to act as a last line of defence. In Blair’s case, however, much of the greatest opprobrium comes from his own side. Jeremy Corbyn inclines to the view that Iraq was not merely a blunder but a crime. In last year’s Labour leadership election, Liz Kendall, the most Blair-esque candidate, was rewarded with 4.5 per cent of the vote. The former prime minister’s imprimatur has become the political equivalent of the black spot.

Yet outside of the Labour leadership, Blairism endures in notable and often surprising forms. Sadiq Khan won the party’s London mayoral selection by running to the left of Tessa Jowell, one of Tony Blair’s closest allies. But his successful campaign against Zac Goldsmith drew lessons from Blair’s election triumphs. Khan relentlessly presented himself as “pro-business” and reached out beyond Labour’s core vote. After his victory, he was liberated to use the B-word, contrasting what “Tony Blair did [in opposition]” with Corbyn’s approach.

In their defence of the UK’s EU membership, David Cameron and George Osborne have deployed arguments once advanced by New Labour. The strategically minded Chancellor has forged an unlikely friendship with his former nemesis Peter Mandelson. In the domestic sphere, through equal marriage, the National Living Wage and the 0.7 per cent overseas aid target, the Conservatives have built on, rather than dismantled, significant Labour achievements."They just swallowed the entire manual," Mandelson declared at a recent King’s College seminar. "They didn’t just read the executive summary, they are following the whole thing to the letter."

Among SNP supporters, "Blairite" is the pejorative of choice. But the parallels between their party and New Labour are more suggestive than they would wish. Like Blair, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have avoided income tax rises in order to retain the support of middle-class Scottish conservatives. In a speech last August on education, Sturgeon echoed the Blairite mantra that "what matters is what works".

Beyond British shores, political leaders are similarly inspired by Blair – and less reticent about acknowledging as much. Matteo Renzi, the 41-year-old centre-left Italian prime minister, is a long-standing admirer. "I adore one of his sayings,” he remarked in 2013. “I love all the traditions of my party, except one: that of losing elections."

In France, the reform-minded prime minister, Manuel Valls, and the minister of economy, Emmanuel Macron, are also self-described Blairites. Macron, who in April launched his own political movement, En Marche!, will shortly decide whether to challenge for the presidency next year. When he was compared to Blair by the TV presenter Andrew Marr, his response reflected the former prime minister’s diminished domestic reputation: “I don’t know if, in your mouth, that is a promise or a threat.”

The continuing attraction of Blair’s “third way” to European politicians reflects the failure of the project’s social-democratic critics to construct an alternative. Those who have sought to do so have struggled both in office (François Hollande) and out of it (Ed Miliband). The left is increasingly polarised between reformers and radicals (Corbyn, Syriza, Podemos), with those in between straining for relevance.

Despite his long absences from Britain, Blair’s friends say that he remains immersed in the intricacies of Labour politics. He has privately warned MPs that any attempt to keep Corbyn off the ballot in the event of a leadership challenge would be overruled by the National Executive Committee. At Methodist Central Hall, he said of Corbyn’s supporters: “It’s clear they can take over a political party. What’s not clear to me is whether they can take over a country.”

It was Blair’s insufficient devotion to the former task that enabled the revival of the left. As Alastair Campbell recently acknowledged: “We failed to develop talent, failed to cement organisational and cultural change in the party and failed to secure our legacy.” Rather than effecting a permanent realignment, as the right of the party hoped and the left feared, New Labour failed to outlive its creators.

It instead endures in a fragmented form as politicians at home and abroad co-opt its defining features: its pro-business pragmatism, its big-tent electoralism, its presentational nous. Some of Corbyn’s ­allies privately fear that Labour will one day re-embrace Blairism. But its new adherents would never dare to use that name.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad