NOI 37: Getting Immigration Terms Right: Dreamers, Asylum Seekers, and More

Today in Nation of Immigrants we talk about using correct vocabulary in the immigration debate.

Jacob Tingen: Hello everybody. Nation of Immigrants. It’s good to see you again today. I have been away on vacation, which has been nice. I hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving. And now we’re back and there has been a lot of interesting news and a lot of interesting things said about immigration. Today’s episode is going to focus on the vocabulary that we use to talk about immigrants and immigration. And I just kind of want to respond to an article that I found on the New York Daily News called, “Get immigration terms straight.” And then it continues, “For starters, so-called Dreamers or aliens and they’re not undocumented.” So just want to talk about this a bit and we’ll see what we have to say after the intro.

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President Obama: America is a nation of immigrants.

Announcer: A podcast about U.S. immigration law with your host, Jacob Tingen.

Jacob Tingen: Okay. So in principle, I don’t mind this article at all. I do think that we should get immigration terms straight. I think that we should all agree on kind of some accepted vocabulary. I think in the last video I talked about how we have to agree on the facts and that that’s what’s so alarming these days is that people can disagree over factual things. So, “Get immigration terms straight, so-called Dreamers are aliens and they’re not undocumented.” And in this article it’s interesting, he has a quote from somebody where they’re like, “And by the way, these people have plenty of documents.” They’re not undocumented, but they’re missing a certain document, which is a green card or a valid unexpired document for a non-immigrant visa. That’s the documentation that is referenced when in the term, “Undocumented.” And so it’s the correct term.

Jacob Tingen: He argues that we should use the term illegal to refer to people. And so as I’ve kind of battled this out in my own mind, and a lot of these immigrants, they’ll call themselves illegals. They’re like, [foereign language 00:02:14]. “I’m an illegal.” And a lot of them don’t use undocumented. And so what’s the big deal? Like, why not just use illegal? Why not stick with that? And this person advocates that we should, Lew Jan Olowski, advocates that we should just call people illegals. And he believes that terms should apply to people who cross illegally. And then I guess additionally to people who overstay their visas. He did make a small distinction between them, but basically his point was they have documents, they entered lawfully, but then they overstate and became illegals. And so again though, I mean it’s not a valid unexpired documents. So they are undocumented in the meaning of that term.

Jacob Tingen: So why is illegal immigrant not the right term to use? Well, for starters, I just think it’s important to point out that people themselves are not illegal. It’s not illegal to exist. It’s not illegal to exist in the United States, even without documents. Illegal is not a state of being. And so to say that, “You’re illegal.” Just kind of implies that you don’t have permission to exist at all. I think that as a term it’s over broad. It’s not accurate. And then I think that it’s frequently used as an epithet. It’s hard to say, “You’re undocumented.” Because frankly that’s accurate, the reason that illegal is used is because it is a charged word. It implies some kind of condemnation in addition to it being undocumented doesn’t imply any kind of of condemnation or badness.

Jacob Tingen: And the thing is, is that, there’s nothing bad with a lot of these immigrants. As we’ve discussed, they commit crimes at a much lower rate than the average population. And a lot of the immigrants currently crossing our U.S.-Mexico border. These are people fleeing for their lives and even if they are just fleeing for economic conditions, what’s so bad about that? So I just kind of want to respond a little bit. He talks about dreamers and how that, “Media outlets conceal that dreamers are illegal aliens and they lean on euphemisms like undocumented or unauthorized. Let’s stop mincing words.” And he says, “An alien is by definition a person who enters a foreign country.” And I actually thought this was interesting. Americans are aliens when they enter foreign countries and foreigners are aliens when they entered the United States. That is technically correct.

Jacob Tingen: You know it is. I’m not going to lie. The term alien, is what you call anybody who’s visiting. And like he said, “Americans are aliens when they enter foreign countries.” That’s true. But let’s be honest. I mean you can choose words that are accurate but that are more offensive than others. Right? And people do that for political purposes. And while a word might be accurate, it might not be friendly. Okay, so you’re saying, “All right, immigrant advocate, Jacob, so you’re saying I shouldn’t use the term alien.” No, you want to use alien, you go right ahead. That’s an accurate term. Okay? But if I know that you’re going to use alien over other terms that you could use, and that’s your preferred term and we’re in a debate and you insist on using certain terminology, well then I know that you’re also staking out a certain position.

Jacob Tingen: Interestingly, one of the articles that I don’t think I actually talked about over the summer is that USCIS had started to use terms like “undocumented” in some of their official memos and documentation and rulemaking. But there a big push over this last summer to go back to the term alien. And while there hadn’t been a push to get away from the term alien, they were slowly getting away from it. It wasn’t that big a deal. But I guess with Ken Cuccinelli or whoever else is involved in these kinds of projects, they started pushing to re-include the term alien, to rewrite certain rules, to use alien as much as possible. Let’s stop at mincing words. Alien is a word that is intended to give a negative connotation. Alien implies somebody who strange, implies somebody who doesn’t belong. That is why it’s a preferred term for people who want to combat, I guess the flow of immigrants to this country, legal or illegal. Or what other flow that you want to use or whatever terms you want to use.

Jacob Tingen: So what’s interesting here’s he goes on and he does use the terms that are technically correct, I’m not going to lie. “DACA does not grant legal status to its alien participants.” That’s true. “Because that’s not my judgment. By its own terms DACA confers no substantive right.” It is a deferred action. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. The action that’s being deferred is deportation. That’s correct. But what’s interesting is, he then goes on to say that we should just call them illegal aliens, which again, I think it’s appropriate to say legal immigration versus illegal immigration. That refers to a process, but to refer to a person as illegal, I think goes too far. And again, let’s stop mincing words. Let’s talk about why we would use the term illegal alien as opposed to undocumented immigrant. Right? Illegal alien is much more charged. It carries a lot more baggage.

Jacob Tingen: And frankly if you’re using it, I know that you’re trying to imply certain things about these people, that they’re strange and that they don’t belong here. And maybe that’s your opinion. Maybe you’re like, “Well yeah they are strange and they don’t belong here.” And yet we have a system of laws that allows people to come to our country, increase our diversity and yes, even if they cross illegally but they’re fleeing for their lives, that’s not necessarily unlawful when they ask for asylum and when. They haven’t necessarily broken any laws. Okay? So illegal alien versus documented immigrant. So these issues, I think it’s important that we start to elevate the immigration conversation. I think I said that in the first episode I did is that the purpose of this podcast and this live stream is to elevate the immigration conversation.

Jacob Tingen: And while we can agree that the term alien is accurate, we can’t agree that the term illegal is appropriate. Because it’s not, it’s not even accurate. Okay? Because a person isn’t illegal. If you want to use undocumented alien, go right ahead. That’s, you’re fine. I’ll use undocumented immigrant. Okay. And of course when I talk to clients and they say they’re illegal, I’m not going to berate them and counsel them and say, “You should start using the term undocumented immigrant.” I know what they’re getting at. And some people are a little more keyed in to these kinds of things than others. But when we debate immigration as a topic, let’s stop mincing words and let’s use words that are generally uplifting, that don’t imply a bias. And if you’re thinking, “Oh, well undocumented immigrant implies a bias.” Okay, maybe it does, but it’s also accurate.

Jacob Tingen: Whereas illegal alien implies a bias and isn’t accurate. Okay. So let’s use accurate terms. Like I said, if you want to use undocumented alien, go right ahead. That’s fine. And yes, undocumented, even though this author says that it’s not accurate, it is, because the documentation that’s missing is the one that would allow them to have legal status in the United States. So, and by the way, many of these people on their path to that. But one of the things I wanted to touch on before I end this episode, see how much time we’re at, is just a couple of other articles about rejection rates for asylum seekers and the impact of immigration prisons. So what does this have to do with the immigration term debate and the words that we use? So first of all, there’s an interesting article in the New York Times in opinion post called Abolish Immigration Prisons by a Mr. Garcia Hernandez, who’s a law professor and author.

Jacob Tingen: And he talks about how we should get rid of immigration prisons. And what’s interesting, and I’ve mentioned this before but immigration law violations are civil in nature. They’re not criminal. These people are being jailed for civil violations, they are not criminals. And while we’ve looked at the data before we’ve talked about it, again, most immigrants commit crime at a much lower rate than the general population. And then of those who are detained, I think we looked at an article a couple of weeks ago, where it said that of those that are detained, 75% have no criminal record at all. And of the 25% that have a criminal record, their only crime is crossing illegally, which again, not really a moral issue there, especially when you consider that a lot of them are fleeing for their lives or for economic conditions. Which again, I mean if you wanted a better job, I wouldn’t blame you. Right? And economic arguments aside and we can tackle those another day. There is an article, I mean, to get to about economic issues.

Jacob Tingen: But anyway, what’s interesting about abolishing immigration prisons is I thought that this particular segment was interesting. It says, “Imprisoning migrants this way is lucrative for prison corporations and politicians and it’s common. But the United States hasn’t always embraced the idea of immigration prisons. In 1954 President Eisenhower’s attorney general Herbert Brownell Jr., announced a decision to shut major immigration detention centers along both coasts, including Ellis Island. While the policy didn’t abolish immigration imprisonment came close. A few years later, the Supreme Court declared this a sign of ‘an enlightened civilization.'” And I’m not typically one to harken back to the past and be like, “Oh, they were so much better back then.” But yeah, I mean, I would agree. Again, these aren’t criminal violations. What need do we have for jails? I understand that there’s an enforcement imperative, and we have to… once people have gone through the process and we have to deport them at the end of their process.

Jacob Tingen: But to have the kind of prison system that we have that’s expansive and overburdened. And pay these private jails, private contractors most of the time to run these jails. It’s kind of a big expense that we frankly just don’t even need to have within our government. The article continues, it says, “The United States has veered far from the enlightenment that the Supreme Court imagines 65 years ago. Under Barack Obama, the Department of Homeland Security locked up more migrants than ever. And the Trump administration has locked up even more.” Even though they’re deporting fewer people, they’re keeping more people in jail.

Jacob Tingen: So it’s just kind of interesting that we’ve got this immigration, imprisonment scenario where we jail a lot of migrants, many of whom haven’t committed crimes in the name of enforcement. When it’s separating families, when it’s preventing them from getting access to counsel, when it’s preventing them from getting access to get immigration relief, when many of them might qualify for relief from deportation, relief from removal or frankly just some other kind of immigration benefit. Where they could get a legal status, where they could go from undocumented to documented. And so these are important issues, why do we need to jail them? And then that goes to my other issue is this final article, and it’s called, “Here’s why the rejection rate for silence secrets has exploded in America’s largest immigration court in New York City.” It’s by Paul Moses and Tim Healey.

Jacob Tingen: It’s about this reporter who sits in on an asylum hearing in New York. And it talks about how… and this is something we’ve talked about before, how the asylum approval rate in New York City’s immigration court has been one of the highest. But as judges retire and the Trump administration has aggressively hired a lot of new judges, they overwhelmingly appear to at least from the data that’s been collected, to deny at rates much higher than in the past. And judges also have quotas and a lot of pressure to close a lot of cases. And a historically high backlog and lots of other court things that we’ve talked about. If you want to get a review of those issues, you can look at our U.S. courts episodes, U.S. immigration courts episodes here on the podcast. But what’s interesting is that this reporter paints a scenario where that is unfortunately common, where it appears that the judge had kind of already made up his mind on this case before it had been decided. And where evidence was presented, due process was denied.

Jacob Tingen: And then ultimately at the end, the reporter was kicked out of the courtroom. And deportation order was entered. So it’s an interesting article. So what does all this have to do with immigration terminology? Well, we should get immigration terms straight. I agree that with that first news article in that point, because when we don’t use correct terminology, we get heated rhetoric that doesn’t match the reality of what’s actually happening, and then it leads to results that aren’t what they should be, that aren’t the enlightened ideals that we represent here in the United States. Instead we’ve got a growing and expansive immigration prison system, we’ve got asylum rejections. I honestly would advise anybody who’s interested to read this particular article. Maybe we’ll put a link in the show notes, but about the rejection rate for asylum seekers and how it’s exploded in the immigration courts.

Jacob Tingen: Judges have good days and bad days. They are people just like anybody else. But it is a shame that we can see now statistically that, denials are increasing in particular with some of these newer judges, which is a challenge. Again, I feel really grateful that I practice in the Arlington court. Most of the judges I deal with seem to be pretty even handed, and good people. So yeah, there’s a lot that’s going on here and it’s important that as we talk about immigration issues, that we elevate the conversation and that we talk about immigrants in a way that isn’t denigrating, that doesn’t kind of accuse them of things that aren’t certain and that we give them kindness. I mean, again, it’s technically accurate to say, undocumented alien, but I think to welcome immigrants into our communities and to call them undocumented immigrants, if that’s what they are, is good.

Jacob Tingen: I’ll end with one little story. One of my friends mentioned to me that, and she has legal status now, but she didn’t always, in the United States. And she mentioned to me how a neighbor told her, “I don’t have problems with people like you who are here legally, but it’s all those illegals.” And she looked at her neighbor and was all like, “You just don’t get it.” I was one of those illegals for years, “And you don’t even know if I have legal status now. We’ve never talked about it. You just assume.” And that’s something that I’ve found is interesting too. A lot of people are like, “Well, I’m okay with immigrants as long as they come here legally and I’m not okay with illegal immigrants.” And sometimes when I talk to people that we know some immigrants in common and I tend to know people’s immigration status. And it’ll come up and people will be just surprised or shocked that a certain person does or doesn’t have legal status, in the United States.

Jacob Tingen: And I just think it’s interesting that we think that the immigrants we know and the ones we’re friends with have legal status. That’s not necessarily always true. And most of these people want to be right with the law, but they can’t go back to their countries. They can’t go for economic reasons, they can’t go for reasons of danger and fear. And they can’t go because frankly they’ve built a life here. They’ve been here more than 10 years, more than 20. They have kids, family. And so again, to call these people illegal aliens at that point is absurd because they’re not strange, they’re not foreign even. A lot of them are more American than many Americans that I know. And so yeah, let’s get immigration terms straight. You can call people undocumented immigrants, and that just helps us have a better conversation.

Jacob Tingen: So thanks for listening in Nation of Immigrants today. I hope you enjoyed today’s episode. There’s a lot more news, so we’ll be touching on some topics here. I hope to post another episode this week. But thanks as always for tuning in and listening. Now you can get back to the impeachment hearings or whatever it is you’re watching online, or just Christmas shopping. Have a good one and we’ll see you next episode.

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President Obama: America is a nation of immigrants.

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