Language matters. One can make a solid case, for instance, that the battle over the legal and cultural status of same-sex relationships ended the very moment some political consultant — surely a world-historical genius — invented the phrase “marriage equality.”
Without carrying any specific meaning (equality for what?), those words managed to invoke our highest ideals. Their crisp rhythm, a poet’s dactylic dimeter, invited endless repetition. Significantly, the phrase sidestepped altogether the insufficiently unifying “gay.” The words, in short, were irresistible, and Americans quickly ceased to resist them.
Let’s not allow the same thing to happen to immigration.
One of the sillier fights being had by political types at the moment — silly because it pits a technical term that has precise meaning against an emotional one that’s infinitely elastic — is over the terms “chain migration” and “family reunification. Which phrase must be used by those who wish to discuss the visa program in question (whereby lawful immigrants to this country “bring over” their relatives)? As is often necessary when discussing the Left, I use the word “must” advisedly: By the time an argument spills onto CNN or into the national Slough of Despond that is Twitter, progressives have usually identified the single correct answer.
Conservatives and policy wonks have therefore been treated recently to Senator Dick Durbin’s pronouncement that the words “chain migration” are “painful” to African Americans. (President Trump’s reported answer, “Oh, that’s a good line,” is enough to make one vote for the man.)
Similarly, Senator Chris Murphy (D., Conn.) tweeted on Saturday:
Reminder: "chain migration" is a made up term by the hardline anti-immigration crowd. Its purpose is to dehumanize immigrants. If you're using that word, you're declaring a side.
— Chris Murphy (@ChrisMurphyCT) January 27, 2018
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D., N.Y.) made the same point on The View (of course): “When someone uses the phrase chain migration, it is intentional in trying to demonize families, literally trying to demonize families and make it a racist slur. It is not right!”
All that’s been missing is a Salon hit-piece arguing that the Right’s thinking on the issue has its roots in Nazi Germany.
Oh, wait. That happened, too: “Trump’s Chain-Migration Obsession: The Nazis Thought of It First.”
In truth, the phrase “chain migration” has existed in the scholarly lexicon for more than half a century, appearing in the literature as early as 1964’s “Chain Migration, Ethnic Neighborhood Formation, and Social Networks” (John S. MacDonald and Leatrice D. MacDonald), which argues, with a seriousness one dearly misses in today’s debate, that “migration is patently more complex than that merely mechanical reshuffling of heads which is assumed by crude economic ‘push-pull’ models.” (Someone alert the Republican establishment.) The two MacDonalds go on to describe chain migration as “that movement in which prospective migrants learn of opportunities, are provided with transportation, and have initial accommodation and employment arranged by means of primary social relationships with previous migrants” (emphases in the original). Our current policy debate involves slightly more specific questions — addressing kinship rather than merely social relationships — but the business described by the MacDonalds is, without question, the same business that’s up for debate today.
The phenomenon has a name, in other words.
That name is chain migration.
Let’s use it.
If we don’t use it — if, instead, we allow the Left’s squishy euphemism “family reunification” to take root in the popular imagination — we’ll be doing a grave disservice to the immigration hawks among us and also to my favorite members of the Right’s “big tent”: the Reality Coalition. Members of the Reality Coalition (I’ll be secretary if everyone likes) reject as a matter of principle the Left’s decades-long attempt to close the nation’s eyes to facts that are either inconvenient or prohibited on ideological grounds. While perhaps more open to technocratic solutions than the average conservative (just let things work!), Reality Coalitionists are shocked and appalled every time progressives “hide the decline” (as climate scientists did with the 1960s decline in temperature), willfully misrepresent the gender of public figures, pretend that a Social Security “trust fund” exists, or fail to discover any link between terrorism and Islam. Certain things are true, we shout at our television screens, and until the American people can agree on those things, we will continue on as a miserable and Balkanized people.
Like other issues that lie uneasily in the borderlands of politics and morality, the immigration debate invites a particularly noxious sort of deception, as partisans weaponize the media’s habit of picking one phrase and sticking with it. (Ridiculously, one still hears the term “pro-choice” from serious journalists.) In this instance, the Left wants the words “family reunification” precisely because they appear to refer to a happy state of affairs that cannot be opposed by any decent human being. Never mind the fact that, as a descriptor of policy, the phrase is woefully imprecise. “Family reunification” we must all say — or a race-baiting, fist-slamming hissy-fit will commence.
What progressives know, of course, is that family reunification is not about reunifying nuclear families at all, whatever the words suggest. (If one didn’t know better, one might say that it was instead about the radical refashioning of the electorate, by Democrats, for political gain.) It is not about little Suzi’s mother. It’s about grown-up Suzi’s brother’s wife, her in-laws, and their adult children. It’s about, finally, the intentional severing of policy from the nation’s interests. Perhaps Americans will thrill to a continuing immigration framework that values an expansive understanding of family more than prospective residents’ skills or educations — more than the country’s economic needs, in other words. But let Americans do so while staring the issue full in the face, not because they’ve been manipulated by tricksy language. And certainly not because idiots in the media (or in the Senate) have started throwing around charges of racism. Again.
Let them do so, too, without any of the usual wishy-washiness from Republicans, many of whom seem keen to lose immigration-related fights without actually appearing to do so. The issue at stake today is not only who will be admitted to this country (though that matters tremendously) but also how this country will use, understand, and respond to words.
A measured, sustainable immigration policy is important. A shared sense of reality is more important still.