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“Broken” or “Out of Date”? Words We Use in the Immigration Debate

June 19, 2008

borderOver the past two years, we’ve heard a great deal about our “broken” immigration system. Both sides of the issue use the term but for distinctly different meanings.

Anti-immigrant groups and journalists like Lou Dobbs use “broken” literally and often use images of the border where holes allow “illegals” to slip into the U.S. It also evokes “breaking” the law, which many opponents claim when they hurl statements into the debate like “What part of illegal don’t you understand?”

Pro-immigrant advocates on the other hand often use “broken” to evoke broken families and disregard for human rights. Fixing the system in their minds means making it more just and fair not repairing literal holes.

Due to this double-edged nature of the word, I’m concerned that both sides of the issue never get down to what they’re really talking about. If an immigrant rights advocate uses “broken system” in a press release, opponents may see a validation of his views since it is so strongly connected in our mind’s eye with a broken border wall.

I’ve been trying to substitute the adjective “out of date” to describe our immigration system. It is the 21st century after all and our current laws are so “retro.” The bulk of the law was written back in the 1986, well before the U.S. signed the North American Free Trade Agreement, a treaty that has had a profound impact on our continent. More than 3 million agricultural workers lost their jobs in Mexico as a result of NAFTA and the US-subsidized corn we dumped there. Add to that the Mexican government’s ballooning foreign debt and how it prevents them to institute job creation programs. Is it any wonder Mexicans come to the US in search of ways to feed their families? Since 1986, there have also been civil wars throughout Central America that have caused significant refugee flows. Not only do our current laws fail to reflect the economic reality in our 21st century “globalized” world, the bulk of the changes made to immigration law have only made it harder and more restrictive to work and live in the U.S.

To encourage the adoption of the adjective “out of date”, I’ve brought it up in several fora of immigrant rights advocates. I even made a video short with friends on this topic “Thru the Plexiglass.” I’ve pointed out to folks that it might be the antidote we need for white-haired Lou Dobbs who is so “out of touch”, “last century”, and “just plain old.” Some folks have agreed. Others think “broken” is a point of agreement between both sides of the issue.

This week, I attended an event at the Santa Monica Public Library where George Lakoff talked about the “Political Mind” , the topic of his new book. Lakoff, the Progressive strategist who also wrote “Don’t Think of an Elephant” regaled the audience with the 21st century’s research findings on “real reason” and how it relates to current political debates.

Somehow Lakoff chose me to get the first question right out of the gate. I presented my concerns over the use of the adjective “broken” and my proposal of “out of date”. Lakoff didn’t seem to think that contested meaning where a problem since “freedom” is used by conservatives and liberals to mean different things, such as “Freedom FROM…” vs. “Freedom TO…” He thought it was still worth fighting over. Lakoff was more disturbed by the lack of gratitude that most Americans have for undocumented immigrants since they make their current lifestyle possible. Lakoff also riffed on the use of “illegal” and why it’s so inaccurate. “No one calls you an ‘illegal parker’ if you get a parking ticket,” he pointed out. Since Lakoff teaches at Berkeley, he may have heard his colleague Geoffrey Nunberg who’s pointed out the same problem with the term.

So I’m left wondering which term is better. I invite you, dear blog reader, to add your two cents in the comments section below. Do you vote for “Broken System”, “Out of Date Laws” or some combination of the two?

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