Framing Immigration: A Response to the NYT

The New York Times (NYT) published a brief piece over the weekend exploring the paper’s use of language in articles touching on immigration. It draws its inspiration from an in-depth article published on Tuesday that aimed to profile the 11-million individuals living without papers in the US.

The Saturday thought piece does a good job of framing how the NYT writers and style guide conceive of the charged language around immigration. Indeed, in the Tuesday article, both “illegal immigrants”, a favorite of the right, and “undocumented immigrants”, a favorite of liberals, made it into print. This mixed lexicon was intentional, also weaving “unauthorized” into the article. Apparently, the only words excluded from the NYT vocabulary are “illegal” and “alien” used as nouns.

Curiously, the exploration of the language of migration failed to take into more academic and progressive perspectives that have been developed over the past years.

A 2006 piece published by George Lakoff and Sam Ferguson has resonated with many intellectuals and activists of the left. “The Framing of Immigration” focuses on how framing has limited the immigration debate to a narrow set of issues. When it comes to migration, most “linguistic expressions are anything but neutral.” As an alternative, Lakoff and Ferguson, suggest “economic refugee” as a term progressives could use to cast light on the struggles that draw individuals to this country at great peril to themselves.

If we hope to build a new consensus on the centrality of immigration to the United States’ future, our language is a simple place to start.

And it could be effective. A 2014 psychology study on US undergraduates found that the labels “illegal immigrants” resulted in significantly less positive attitudes than “undocumented immigrants”. Analysis of language use by media outlets and polling demonstrates that framing matters a great deal. Policy makers and advocates need to focus greater attention on how they talk about policies: “Amnesty” should be dropped in favor of “path to citizenship”.

In speaking and writing about immigration in this error of vitriol and baseless claims, we as a new generation would do well to begin our struggle with a common frame. If “economic refugee” becomes the norm, prosperity and peace would not be far behind for those who come to our country for the noblest of reasons.