As we prepare for the debate over a possible DACA bill, Leo R. Chavez takes to the pages of the L.A. Times this week, not to complain about any of the specific policy initiatives under discussion, but about “the language” we’re using to talk about immigration. Apparently we’re weaponizing the language to make immigrants look bad… or something. It’s a strange line of attack to choose, particularly when it’s been liberals and progressives who have raised the practice of distorting words for their own purposes to an art form.
There are clearly plenty of words and phrases to choose from in this debate, and honestly, I was a bit surprised that Chavez didn’t take a swing at the term illegal alien. Of course, that’s a tough case to make since the words come straight from the Constitution and centuries of federal law. Instead, the author spends much of the column space he was allotted to talk about “chain migration.” It’s a hot topic which even showed up in the State of the Union address. It’s also been around for decades, but now it’s being deemed racist and offensive.
Chain migration is not the only academic concept or demographic reality manipulated to sound threatening in public discourse about immigration.
Chain migration has, since the 1960s, referred to the process by which migrants from one city or town follow each other to a new destination, possibly in another country. Thanks to chain migration, even low-income families can create or maintain social networks and access a wealth of social capital. Early arrivals support newcomers with a place to stay, resources and information about the local labor market, schools and culture. Chain migration facilitates cultural integration.
Chain migration happens in part because we allow immigrants into the country on the basis of family ties.
Curiously, Chavez seems to shoot his own argument down a bit later in the essay while criticizing the President’s use of the phrase. He complains that it, “evokes unwashed masses invading the country — one person after another in an unbroken chain.”
Well… yes. It does evoke precisely that image because that’s exactly what we’re talking about. Of course, it’s the author, not Trump, who chooses to add the phrase “unwashed masses” which could make it sound significantly more derogatory I suppose. But it’s obviously a description of a “chain” of people who arrive based on their “links” to the first person to make it safely over the border. Also, and somewhat ironically, choosing unwashed masses takes what was historically a pejorative term and spins it into a mashup of a couple of references from The New Colossus. (“Huddled masses yearning” and the visuals of, “wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”)
Also note that Chavez, along with too many others in this debate, refers continuously to “chain migration.” It’s an interesting choice in this context because migration simply implies movement. When you describe migration, be it by humans, animals or chemical compounds spreading from one medium to another, all you’re really talking about is relocation. It could be applied to hunter-gatherers fleeing a drought stricken area for a region with more rainfall. But what we’re really discussing here is chain immigration, and that’s a very different word with specific legal connotations. It shares little in common with simple migration and obviously involves something more properly described in terms of being a chain.
Chavez also takes issue with the concept of “anchor babies” as being clearly racist or some other “ist” on a long list of sins. That’s a separate part of the immigration discussion (and a worthwhile one to have), but it’s also not weaponized language. It’s a description of a process. And much like the venerable term illegal alien, it serves a purpose in communicating clearly. Attacking the words being used doesn’t move the conversation forward or offer any new solutions.