I was all set to publish a different post about the death of Anwar al-Awlaki. However, as I was reading over today’s New York Times daily email, a different story caught my attention: Fatal Accident Puts Focus on Deportation Program. The article describes a traffic accident that has put Massachusetts in the spotlight for the governor’s refusal to implement the Secure Communities program – a program that uses information sharing between the FBI and ICE to identify immigrants who are in the country unlawfully, especially those who have committed violent crimes.

The traffic accident involved an immigrant from Ecuador who, while driving drunk, hit, dragged, and killed a motorcyclist. Author Abby Goodnough states in typical New York Times’ passive voice judgement: “The Guaman case and several others … have become part of a growing debate over whether Massachusetts is too easy on illegal immigrants.” She doesn’t clearly outline who the participants are in this debate. While, “many here have pointed to his case as an example of why the federal program, known as Secure Communities, is necessary,” we have no information that hints as to why that might be. One must be content to wonder whether Guaman had a previous record, in which case Secure Communities might have taken steps to deport the man – otherwise the suggestion would have little bearing.

Along with another oblique use of passive voice denouncing the outrage that the incident “has stirred” in… well… someone, Goodnough opens the article by identifying the man involved as an “illegal immigrant.” Perhaps she is quoting the police, whom she credits for the information. Regardless, I am stunned at such a careless and irresponsible turn of phrase in the New York Times. Even more astonishingly, the New York Times created an email alert topic titled “illegal immigrants.”

The phrase “illegal immigrant” is neither accurate nor appropriate. Legality does not pertain to one’s personhood, but to an action, whence phrases like: unlawful entry, undocumented resident / worker, illegal immigration. One can enter the country unlawfully, they may lack the requisite documentation for residence or employment, but they do not become, themselves, illegal. I have referenced this in an earlier post, but when society creates a group and distinguishes it as “other,” marginalizes that group according to official sub-class status – like that of “illegal” – the road is set for that group to be castigated, penalized, oppressed, and subject to an array of abuses, because they are less-than-citizens.

Our government agencies are adept at creating public discourse that maintains respectful and appropriate rhetoric, which demonstrated that this is possible. Our major newspapers should be at least as adept in their use of rhetoric to frame an argument – or at least conscious of having done so – in order to sustain even a pretense of impartiality.

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