Sunday, April 14, 2013

A Matter of Semantics

Recently, the Associated Press handed down a new policy on the use of illegal immigrant in AP articles.

The policy is as clear as mud.

I teach journalism in the Dallas County community college system, and the AP's Stylebook is one of the texts we use. Other faculty members and I also use it when we advise the student newspaper staff.

Personally, I have been using the Stylebook since I was in college. It's been in use in every newsroom in which I have worked since that time.

Sometimes it can seem that journalists are slavishly devoted to the Stylebook's rulings on things. I'll give you that one. I hear that complaint from students all the time. I complained about it myself when I was their age.

But be fair here. The Stylebook is the final arbiter for journalists. We turn to it to resolve issues that come up in newsrooms.

And one of the biggest, ongoing issues in recent years has been the one of how to refer to non–citizens who are in the United States.

The popular phrase has been illegal immigrants, but I have resisted the use of the word immigrants.

I tend to agree with the assertion that a person cannot be illegal. A person's actions (or intentions) may be illegal, but a person cannot be. defines immigrant this way: "a person who migrates to another country, usually for permanent residence."

That suggests to me someone who is following the sanctioned method for attaining citizenship. Talk of establishing a path to citizenship suggests that such a path does not already exist. But it does.

To be a permanent resident implies that one not only lives here but follows the rules, from obeying speed limits and driving on the right side of the road to paying taxes, all that stuff, with the intention of becoming a citizen.

If a citizen breaks the rules, he/she risks losing certain privileges that go with being a citizen — like voting, for instance.

If one doesn't follow the rules for becoming a citizen, it is hard for me to see how one can logically be expected to follow the rules after attaining citizenship. Thus, it is difficult for me to categorize one who is here illegally as an immigrant.

But if a non–citizen is not following the rules for becoming a citizen, that does not mean that person's intentions are illegal. It means that person is pursuing something other than citizenship.

My term for such a person would be alien.

Let's return to for a minute or two.

It defines alien this way: "a resident born in or belonging to another country who has not acquired citizenship by naturalization."

Aha! The introduction of yet another important word — naturalization. defines it this way: "to confer upon (an alien) the rights and privileges of a citizen."

And defines citizen as "a native or naturalized member of a state or nation who owes allegiance to its government and is entitled to its protection (distinguished from alien)."

If one is here illegally, can that person ever really owe allegiance to the government of the country where he resides? Can he ever be entitled to its protection?

Per the definition, an alien cannot.

Because the word alien, it seems to me, already defines such a person as having an allegiance elsewhere — or perhaps having no allegiance at all.

But, as I observed earlier, not all aliens are here illegally.

You see, it really does seem to me that the words alien and immigrant speak to intent.

We do not deny aliens the opportunity to live here nor would I suggest such a thing, but aliens and immigrants are distinct by virtue of their intentions. Many aliens live in this country for the legitimate purpose of pursuing an education, but their intention is to return to their native country when they are finished. They are here to obtain knowledge, not American citizenship.

Sometimes such openness backfires — as it did when terrorists used knowledge they acquired here to fly planes they had hijacked into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

After those events, those young men were known — and will always be known — as terrorists and hijackers. But before Sept. 11, 2001, how were they classified?

To my knowledge, none had applied for U.S. citizenship. They weren't considered immigrants. They were openly seeking an education. They must have been regarded as aliens.

That word did not — and does not — speak to the legality of their activities or the legitimacy of their presence on American soil. It only speaks to their stated intentions.

Perhaps many aliens do intend to apply for citizenship. When they do, they should be regarded as immigrants, and they should continue to be regarded as immigrants until they become citizens — or unless they violate the law.

Until they apply for citizenship, however, they are aliens.

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