Stop saying “undocumented” workers

Well-meaning immigration reformers are setting the cause back by using a negative frame. Here's what to say instead

Topics: Immigration, Immigration Reform, Undocumented immigrants, Language, Polling,

Stop saying "undocumented" workersChuck Schumer, U.S. Senator, who hails from Brooklyn (Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

Despite all signs that the comprehensive immigration reform bill is troubled, the push for such legislation will continue. And during the current effort and certainly in the event of a next go-around, the reformers’ strategy ought to include recasting their language — especially a certain very difficult word.

I’m talking about the delicate euphemism “undocumented worker,” which is becoming the journalistic term of favor for the people who used to be called “illegal aliens.” The U-word is certainly many steps above that noxious label, but public opinion research shows that it still fares poorly among likely voters. They smell the forced artificiality, and they are not wrong in finding the term ineffective.

Let’s start with the biggest problem: it describes immigrants by what they lack, not what they bring. When something is “un” or “il” it falls into the dreaded category of Other. And, especially in these hard economic times, that means “not my problem.”

Further, “undocumented” still sits squarely in the rule of law framework, contending the issue at hand is whether or not a person has papers. Add “worker” to this and you’ve pretty much teed up opponents’ talking point about “taking our jobs.”

Other messaging staples among the pro-comprehensive reform cohort are less transparent, though no less troublesome. Calls to “secure our border” and “require immigrants obey our laws and learn our language” are meant as a nod to the center. Using them, the tech-sector moguls behind FWD.us, House Democrats and the Obama Administration, long to seem like the adults in the room. Sadly, these formulations actually make the case for the opposition; they convince audiences security is an ongoing dangerous problem and immigration is largely an issue of skulking through the desert by night.

In recent dial testing measuring moment to moment preferences among a representative sample of nearly 1200 voters, my colleagues and I — including Lake Research Partners, Democratic strategist Ryan Clayton, Opportunity Agenda and America’s Voice – found this “security” and “require” language, which places immigrants in the object position thus denying them agency and intentionality, tests admittedly well. But it does so with the listeners who are most anti-immigrant at the start and remain so after hearing all the arguments.



Not surprisingly, the folks in this grouping – opponents of immigration – favored the labels “illegal aliens” and “illegal immigrants” to a large degree. The coalition of support advocates need on board, those already on their side and the persuadable middle, preferred new terms we offered over these labels and far more than “undocumented.”  For those who already understand why a roadmap to citizenship is imperative and can be made to swing this way, “aspiring citizens” and “new Americans” are their preferred terms.

Other staples in this debate, like “Nation of Immigrants” also proved unhelpful to the pro-immigrant case. While this may hold true for your ancestors, coming from another land to our shores isn’t rooted in the lived experience of enough current audiences. Thus it doesn’t go straight to the emotional brain center, the way fears for personal safety do, and aims instead for the more exacting cerebral cortex, where voting decisions tend not to dwell.

Here’s the truth about immigration: people move. The same is true today as has been throughout history, people move to make life better for themselves and their families. It’s hard to move. But you do it to put food on the table or send your kids to a decent school.

Immigrant Americans move here for the promise of freedom and opportunity in this country. And, we believe that moving for your family is one of the best and hardest things you can do. Some of our aspiring citizens may lack certain paperwork but they bring so much more: courage in abundance, tenacity, family ties and loyalty to the nation they chose to call home. Calling them “undocumented” veils these contributions and ambitions.

We change our laws to match our values and one of the values we hold dear to our hearts is a deeply rooted belief in the freedom to say what you want to say, go where you want to go and be who you want to be. America’s supposed to be the land of the free and the home of the brave. That’s a good thing; let’s communicate that vision and pass legislation to keep it that way.

Anat Shenker-Osorio is a communications consultant and the author of Don't Buy It: The Trouble with Talking Nonsense about the Economy.

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