The worst thing you can do while discussing illegal immigration is to use plain, unadorned language in describing the subject. That’s a lesson that editors and writers at the New York Times have learned again this week after a reader revolt over the use of the phrase “catch and release.”
After the Times published an article on the fallout from the revocation of the administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration-enforcement policy, it received so many complaints about the article’s use of “catch and release” that deputy national editor Kim Murphy felt compelled to respond. As Murphy pointed out, the phrase in question has been used as a shorthand for a particular government policy since the George W. Bush administration. It describes the fact that illegal immigrants caught crossing the border have often been released soon afterward. Many of them then fail to show up for a scheduled court hearing about their legal status, offering further proof of the broken nature of our immigration system.
But according to Times readers, employing “catch and release” in new stories is deeply wrong, because the phrase is also used to describe those who choose to release fish back into the water after catching them. If you can say it about a fish, and it’s a phrase that President Donald Trump has used in defense of his immigration policies, then, this argument goes, it’s offensive.
When put on the spot about it, Murphy was forced to plead guilty with an explanation. The phrase “has had a way of seeping into news coverage,” she admitted, but for good reason: “It so succinctly describes a complex sets of responses to illegal immigration and asylum law.”
In a saner or at least less politically biased journalistic environment, that would be the end of the discussion since, as Murphy noted, “I personally would never have thought of it as a way of describing a person as a fish.” Nor would I or, I imagine, most readers who did not come to the story with a political agenda. Moreover, if the phrase seems pejorative, the negative association is not with the person being released; it’s with a futile, hopelessly inept government strategy that makes an already difficult problem worse.
But since all things Trump are inherently evil and any alleged insensitivity to those who are perceived as oppressed must be ruthlessly stamped out, Murphy was forced to admit guilt, writing that “adopting a fishing metaphor” means the newspaper has described those caught by the border patrol as if they were fish. While she could not promise to eradicate the phrase’s use, Murphy did say that she has officially cautioned all those who write for the Times about immigration to “include it only in reference to the administration’s use of the phrase; we don’t want to make it ours.”
This is not really about standing up for anyone’s humanity. It’s about the desire of some people to treat immigration law as a mere technicality the violation of which ought to earn offenders the equivalent of a traffic ticket.
It isn’t just that Trump’s critics are fishing for evidence of racism in places where it doesn’t exist. The whole point of linguistic battles about immigration is not to be more accurate or even more sensitive. It is to obfuscate, making illegal acts appear inoffensive while making law enforcement seem an act of heartless tyranny.
At the heart of this is the claim that the term “illegal immigrant” is itself dehumanizing. That’s the position the Associated Press Stylebook has taken since 2013, asserting that while the term describes behavior, it should not describe a person. Those who advocate on behalf of illegal immigrants prefer the word “undocumented,” which they feel is less judgmental. So it is, but as the AP noted at the time, it is also painfully imprecise, since a person can have plenty of documents, including false or forged papers, while not possessing those that are required to prove legal residence.
In 2012, then Times public editor at the time, Margaret Sullivan defended the use of “illegal immigrant” in this way:
It is clear and accurate; it gets its job done in two words that are easily understood. The same cannot be said of the most frequently suggested alternatives — “unauthorized,” “immigrants without legal status,” “undocumented. . . .”
Just as “illegal tenant” in a real estate story (another phrase you could have seen in Times articles or headlines) is brief and descriptive, so is “illegal immigrant.” In neither case is there an implication that those described that way necessarily have committed a crime, although in some cases they may have.
This is not a judgment on immigration policy or on the various positions surrounding immigration reform, or those who hold those positions. Nor is it meant to be uncaring about the people to whom the words apply. It’s simply a judgment about clarity and accuracy, which readers hold so dear.
Times have changed at the Times since then. Sullivan’s wise analysis has been discarded in favor of a politicization of language that treats the term as conservative hate speech. This is not really about standing up for anyone’s humanity. It’s about the desire of some people to treat immigration law as a mere technicality the violation of which ought to earn offenders the equivalent of a traffic ticket. It’s an attempt to blur or erase legitimate distinctions between criminals and law-abiding people, not to humanize victims of discrimination. As such, it should be resisted at all costs.