What's in a name?

I was hoping that American politicians were going to have a serious and pragmatic debate about immigration this year; all the signs were promising. That, however, was before Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-MI) came out with this beauty:

I hope no one uses the term illegal immigrants here today. Our citizens are not — the people in this country are not illegal. They are are out of status. They are new Americans that are immigrants
Well, let's break this down, Rep. Conyers. Your citizens are indeed not illegal, unless their application for citizenship was fraudulent. Given what I know of the USCIS process for applying for citizenship, it's reasonable to assume that the fraction of citizens who are illegal is tiny - but it's not zero. Anyway, let's look at the categories of people in the USA:

  1. Legal citizens: US citizens by birth, or by application where the claims supporting their application were true.
  2. Illegal citizens: US citizens by application where the claims supporting their application were false.
  3. Legal immigrants: those permanently resident in the USA who hold a valid Green Card (US "permanent" residency permit) where the claims supporting their Green Card application were true.
  4. Illegal immigrants: those permanently resident in the USA who either have no Green Card, whose Green Card has expired or been rendered invalid, or whose Green Card application was based on false claims.
  5. Legal visitors: those who are in the USA for a limited time for either pleasure or business, who hold a valid in-date visa appropriate to their activities if required (tourists can't work, for example, but Canadians don't need a visa as long as they don't work), whose entry application was truthful.
  6. Illegal visitors: those in the USA for a limited time who either evaded border controls, overstayed their stay time, broke the conditions of their visa or entry, or whose entry application was untruthful.

It doesn't seem too much of a stretch to say that categories 2, 4, 6 are "illegal". They have specifically violated the laws pertaining to the entry or stay in the USA. This is in line with the current proposals for legitimising with illegal immigrants (category 4) - if they want to stay in the USA, they have to pay a fine (as they have violated the law) plus ensure they are up to date with taxes.

Rep. Conyers is not alone in his linguistic contortions:

But defenders of the term "alien" argue that an immigrant is someone who arrived here legally, while an alien is any foreigner — therefore an "illegal alien" is the proper description for those who are here outside of the law.
It's too general. An "alien" could either be an immigrant (permanent) or visitor (temporary). The current immigration proposals are targeted at immigrants; they do not (and should not) make any concessions towards visitors as the visitors eventually intend to leave. "Illegal alien" is a valid definition for a group of people, but it's not relevant to the immigration debate. While we're here, "undocumented migrants" is a particularly stupid term. Nearly everyone has (or had) documents pertaining to their nationality; a birth certificate, government ID card etc. Losing or throwing away those documents should not be relevant to immigration status. I'm sure there is a small subset of illegal immigrants who cannot reasonably obtain their original documentation, but the general use of "undocumented" in this context refers to immigrants who do not have valid USA-issued documentation pertinent to their stay - because the USCIS does not knowingly grant documentation to those who break the rules. Heck, it's hard enough to get documents out of them when you do follow the rules.

In summary: anyone using "undocumented" in the context of immigration is likely talking out of their fundament, and Rep. Conyers' use of "new Americans who are immigrants" is one of the weasliest phrases I've heard from a politician in a while.

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