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.

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Did Titantic do more for climate change than Leonardo DiCaprio’s new documentary?

Sex, icebergs and individual plight: the actor’s earlier outing teaches us more about vast disasters than his new docufilm about global warming’s impact, Before the Flood.

“Now you know there was a man named Jack Dawson and that he saved me . . . in every way that a person can be saved.” Or did he? For Titanic actor Leonardo DiCaprio, there is one way in which Jack never did rescue Rose: from the threat of climate catastrophe. 

Over the last 15 years, DiCaprio has made the issue a personal mission. Yet even in his role as UN climate ambassador, he stills feels far from heroic:

“If the UN really knew how I feel, how pessimistic I am about our future . . . I mean to be honest, they may have picked the wrong guy.”

So begins his new documentary, Before the Flood. A quest for answers on climate change, the film sees Leo racing around the world, marvelling at the sound of endangered whales, despairing at the destruction caused by tar-sands – “it looks like Mordor” – and interviewing a series of concerned experts, from professors to Barack Obama to the Pope.

There are plenty of naysayers to stand in his way and put him down. “Who better to educate world leaders on made-up climate change and a crisis that doesn't exist, than an actor with zero years of scientific training?” mocks one commentator from Fox News.

But if DiCaprio can gather enough evidence to believe in himself – AND believe that there are viable solutions out there – then so can we. Or so the story arc promises. His journey thus stands as a guide for our own; a self-education that will lead to salvation for all. 

It's all a little messianic. The film is even named after a biblical painting. And will those who don't already know who DiCaprio is even care? 

The sad fact is that, while DiCaprio’s lasting popularity still owes so much Titanic, the 1997 box-office smash that made his name, his new documentary fails to recapture the dramatic wisdom that put him there. It doesn’t even quip about the icebergs.

This is an oversight. Titanic didn’t win 11 academy awards for nothing. As well as a must-see rite of passage (pun intended) and soundtrack for infinite school discos, it taught me something invaluable about storytelling. Though I was not initially a DiCaprio fan, over the years I’ve come to accept that my lasting love of the film is inseparable from my emotional investment in Leo, or at least in his character, Jack. What Titanic showed so brilliantly was that the fastest way to empathise with suffering on a vast scale – be it a sinking ship or a sinking planet – is to learn to care for the fate of one or two individuals involved.

Every part of Jack and Rose's story is thus intimately linked with the story of the ship. Even that famed sex scene gains its erotic force not from the characters alone, but from their race through the blazing engine room (situated as it is between the foreplay of the naked portrait and the famous post-coital ending in the back of the cab).

And such carefully crafted storytelling isn't only essential to great entertainment but to great activism too. It can literally inspire action – as evidenced by fans’ desperate attempts to prove that both Jack and Rose could have climbed to safety aboard the floating piece of wood.

So would Before the Flood have been better if it had been a little bit more like Titanic and less like An Inconvenient Truth? Yes. And does that mean we should make climate films about epic polar bear love stories instead? Not exactly. 

There are many powerful documentaries out there that make you emotionally invested in the lives of those experiencing the consequences of our indirect (fossil fuel-burning) actions. Take Virunga, a heart-wrenching insight into the struggle of those protecting eastern Congo’s national park.

Sadly, Before the Flood is not one of them. Its examples of climate change – from Beijing air pollution to coral reef destruction – are over-familiar and under-explored. Instead of interviewing a Chinese official with a graph on his iPad, I would have preferred visiting a solar-panel factory worker and meeting their family, who are perhaps suffering from the effects of the smog in a way I can't yet imagine.

If you want a whistlestop tour of all things climate change then this necessary and urgent film is the movie for you. But those hoping it will give new depth to climate activism will be disappointed.

DiCaprio's distant relationship with the effects of climate change leave him stranded at the level of a narrator. He makes for a great elderly Rose, but we need a Jack.

Before The Flood is in limited theatres from 21 October and will be shown on National Geographic on Sunday 30 October.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.