Be Nice: Internal Debate Heats up Within GOP on Use of Immigration Terms

Be nice.


That's the plea some moderate Republicans sent to their colleagues in Congress in a memo asking them, essentially, to reconsider their linguistic choices when publicly discussing immigration.

The memo, written by Jennifer Korn, a former Bush administration official who now heads the Hispanic Leadership Network, urges Republican political leaders to stay away from terms like “aliens,” “anchor babies,” and “amnesty” –  loaded words that are described as divisive and counterproductive.

Instead, the memo says, “When talking about immigrants…use ‘undocumented immigrant’ when referring to those here without documentation.”

The memo was sent at a time when, according to many political experts, Congress seems more poised than it has ever been to reforming the immigration system in a way that tightens enforcement and provides undocumented immigrants with a way to legalize their status.

And that momentum comes after a bruising experience in the presidential elections with Latino voters, who overwhelmingly voted for President Barack Obama over his GOP challenger Mitt Romney. In numerous polls, Latino voters -- including those who are native-born U.S. citizens -- said they objected to the harsh tone that Romney and other Republicans used when speaking about immigration.

Korn said in an interview that the loaded language of some Republicans ended up as a political weapon for the Democrats.

Within the Hispanic community, there are certain buzz words, a harsh tone, that doesn’t help the debate [on immigration].

— Jennifer Korn, executive director of Hispanic Leadership Network

“What President Obama did was take all those messages and use them against all conservatives,” said Korn. “Within the Hispanic community, there are certain buzz words, a harsh tone, that doesn’t help the debate.”

It hurts Republicans, and distorts their image, Korn said, when some “talk and have a knee-jerk reaction to ‘amnesty,’ and don’t explain what it is you’re for, what are your solutions.”

In Fox News Latino polls last year, likely Latino voters said that they had felt offended by the hard-line rhetoric that Republicans frequently used – particularly during the GOP primaries – when addressing immigration and English as the official language.

Some proponents of strict immigration enforcement say that efforts to soften rhetoric is nothing more than "political correctness." They say will continue to use the controversial terms.

"They're just spinning, they want to sugar-coat everything," said Ron Bass, founder and director of United Patriots of America, a New Jersey-based group.

"We know the real story," said Bass, referring to people and groups that have been involved in immigration debates for a long time. "The official, government designation for people who are here illegally is 'illegal alien.' It's the official term."

As recently as this week, some Republican leaders in Congress assailed a bipartisan Senate proposal for immigration reform, saying it rewards lawbreakers by offering “amnesty” to “illegal” immigrants.

“Amnesty means a full pardon without penalty,” said Korn in her interview. “People think we’re just going to hand them citizenship and let them get ahead of people who have been waiting 10, 15 years to come legally.”

But not only is that offensive, it is misleading, Korn said. When Republicans throw out such terms, it encourages opposition to an idea, even when that is not the GOP lawmaker’s intention, she said.

The senators’ bipartisan plan would allow a path to legalization only if a person meets a broad set of criteria, Korn said.

“You have to pass a background check, have to learn English, and then you get a provisional visa,” she said. “We like to say ‘earned legal status,’ because that is what it is.”

“It’s more constructive to come up with, and offer, solutions than to oppose every idea for immigration reform that comes out,” she said. “When you accurately explain what something is, and say earned legalization instead of amnesty, people say they overwhelmingly support it.”

Most of the time immigrant advocates won’t agree with the Republican agenda, but they’re all for this move and praised Korn’s memo.

“Careless, hostile language rarely moves any problem towards resolution—even a kid on a playground knows that,” said Wendy Feliz, communications director for the American Immigration Council, which advocates for immigrant rights. “It’s encouraging to see everyone taking a more careful approach when discussing immigration.  The way someone talks about this issue in the coming months will demonstrate whether or not they are committed to finally finding a resolution or to being a bully.”