Framing the Issue

Using a term with the intent of criminalizing immigrants and evoke hatred

By Rodolfo F. Acu?a
Published on LatinoLA: May 18, 2006

Framing the Issue

In an interview with Lou Dobbs, Nativo L?pez, president of the Mexican American Political Association and Hermandad Mexicana, accused the CNN commentator of being a racist for using the term "illegal alien."

Some reasoned that it was uncalled for since Dobbs characterization is used even by some immigrants. And that many Mexicans and Latinos consider the label innocuous. But L?pez is right, it is a racist phrase and it must be challenged.

The truth be told, phrase has been framed by the media to evoke specific images or ideas. Words have meaning and are used to recall a response. In the case of the media the purpose is to attract readers or viewers. Thus, the media set an agenda frame or set the agenda.

The late economist Stuart Chase alluded to this framing in his work Tyranny of Words.? Chase called attention to the power of words and the intentional mistranslation of words and thus their tyranny.

For example, in 1953-55 during the mass deportation of Mexicans, the United States government used propaganda to convey a sense of war. During a war measures are extreme and extreme discourse is permitted with words such as "human rights," "tolerance," "freedom" and "democracy" taking different meanings.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service insidiously called it ?Operation Wetback.? Attorney General Herbert Brownell Jr (1953-1957) suggested that in order to stem the flow the Border Patrol should go out and shoot a half dozen ?wetbacks? to put the fear of God in them. Brownell was ahead of his time and there was some public reaction.

Since then, the media have done a much better job of framing the issue and the public agenda. In their ?issue management? they have affected public policy and perception. Words have become weapons in this war against people who largely just want the same things as most Americans.

In order to attract readers and viewers they invented the term ?illegal alien? which evokes the image of Mexicans and other Latinos as criminals. The word is specific to brown skinned people and is not specific to hundreds of thousands of undocumented Irish, Poles,
Russians, Koreans and others. ?Illegal alien? just like its predecessor ?wetback? means Mexican; the Dobbs of this world do not differentiate between Mexicans and Central and Latin Americans.

I did not arrive at the above conclusion that the use of ?illegal alien? is racist and opportunistic through a sudden epiphany. It is based on scholarship spanning fifty years. Most of it is based on empirical evidence rather than theory. In reading some 20,000 articles it is clear that Dobbs and his cabal framed the use of ?illegal alien? with the
intent of criminalizing them and evoking hatred.

In searching the file of the Los Angeles Times index for 1881-1986 I found 6308 documents for ?illegal alien. It was first used on Sep 25, 1901 in the context of general immigration. The first reference to Mexicans came in Jan 26, 1930; it was only the fourth time it was used. By 1970 the phrase had only been used 100 times. But, from 1970 to mid
1985 it was used more than 6200 times.

The New York Times began publishing in 1851, some 30 years before the LA Times. New York is significant because it was the nation?s principal port of entry and arguably had more immigrants than Los Angeles. However, the NYT did not use the term until 1926 when it reported a man on a bicycle made an authorized entry on the Canadian border. By 1970 it
had used the term 74 times. But, from 1970 to 2003 it used the phrase 4382 times. A reasonable estimate is that by this time, the Los Angeles Times would have framed the term close to 20,000 times.

I have to concede that Dobbs and his cabal know English and use language better than I do. However, I have consulted dictionaries and ?illegal? means a criminal act. That is the image that most people get. Alien is open ended. It is generally an adjective which can refer to an alien plant or animal species. Most commonly it is associated with being from
another world.

I doubt whether the media and the politicos do not know precisely what they are saying or want to convey. As for most Americans, well, pobrecitos, I don?t think that they reason beyond the second syllable.

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