AuthorHiggins, Maeve

As a writer, I have two daily obsessions. One is coffee, the other is language. I'm not a snob about either; I just need them both to make my brain work. In these strange and dangerous days of COVID-19, both of them keep me sane.

But if I had to choose only one, I'd give up my beloved coffee for words. I understand how important language is in my own life, so I keep an eye on how it operates, the work it does, and the influence it has.

An important choice must be made by each of us when we talk about people who were not born in the United States but are living here without legal status. Perhaps that's you, or someone in your family. It's surely someone in your community. Best estimates place the number of people in this circumstance at about 10.5 million.

When I talk about this group, I use the words "undocumented immigrants." When President Donald Trump talks, he prefers the words "illegal aliens." Or at least that's the term he uses now. The Washington Post reported that Trump said "illegal alien" only twice in his first year as President. In 2019, he suddenly started using the phrase a lot, including three times in ten minutes in his first prime-time Oval Office address.

In her award-winning book, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America, Mae Ngai writes, "The illegal alien that is abstractly defined is something of a spectre, a body stripped of individual personage." So that's what the President is doing: "Illegal" sounds like a criminal and "alien" sounds like a monster. It's easier to deny human rights to criminals and monsters than, say, your gentle uncle who happens to live here without the correct paperwork.

During the March 15 debate, Joe Biden referred to "an undocumented alien," then quickly corrected himself to "an undocumented person." This seeming slip-up came as he answered a question about the danger of undocumented people underreporting cases of COVID-19 out of the fear that if they make themselves known, they will be reported to immigration authorities and potentially deported.

Biden insisted they should be safe to report an illness and get help without repercussions. Bernie Sanders added that his proposed Medicare for All plan includes the undocumented, saying, "That should be a general principle, above and beyond the coronavirus."

The U.S. economy has always needed immigrant labor, and being the relentlessly...

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