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Greenfield: Defining the immigration debate

Are we debating 'illegal aliens' or 'undocumented workers'?

By Jeff Greenfield
CNN Senior Analyst

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Did protesters last week march to support "undocumented workers" or, as critics say, "illegal aliens?"

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Justice and Rights
Civil Rights

NEW YORK (CNN) -- When Shakespeare asked "What's in a name?" he was talking about doomed love, not political debate. But if you look at the argument over immigration, you can see how just about every word we use is packed with powerful meaning.

Consider the phrase: "undocumented workers." "Undocumented" suggests that the problem here is some kind of bureaucratic snafu that could happen to anyone: showing up at the DMV without the right paperwork, or trying to return something to a department store. It doesn't suggest anything about the act of getting into the country in the first place -- by breaking the law and surreptitiously crossing the border.

How about "worker" -- that's one of the most evocative words in our political vocabulary. It implies a host of admirable notions: "hard working," "working families." And remember Bill Clinton's constant references to people who "work hard and play by the rules." There's almost a hint here of the idea that if you work hard, you must be playing by the rules, even if you broke those rules to get here.

Now look at the other side: "illegal aliens."

"Illegal" implies more than just the act that got someone here. The suggestion is that illegality governs their lives, that, in some way, they are breaking the law every day, with other, more obviously criminal and dangerous acts -- even if they are employed, paying payroll and other taxes, and behaving as model citizens.

And as for "aliens" -- the very words conjures up hostile feelings. "It's alien to our nature," for instance. We not only think of "aliens" as separate from ourselves, we've been taught by our culture to see "aliens" as creatures completely different from ourselves.

As for "amnesty," nobody's for that. Back almost 30 years ago, when President Carter pardoned draft resisters, he was careful to say "amnesty" means what you did was right, "pardon" means it was wrong but we forgive you.

One side says it's not "amnesty" if you have to pay fines, back taxes and move to the end of the line. The other says: "if you get to say in the U.S. ahead of those applying legally, it is 'amnesty.' "

We've have these battles over "naming rights" often in our past. When segregation was in place throughout much of the South, the more "respectable" defenders of that system didn't like to talk about "keeping them in their place." They much preferred the term "states' rights" to describe the systematic denial of basic civil rights on grounds of skin color. And in our time, combatants in the abortion debate group themselves as "pro-choice" or "pro-life."

So what's in a name? Maybe it decides who gets to win a major political argument.

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