There Was a Time When Words Had Meaning

The Central Americans being arrested at the border are not “migrants,” and they are not being held in “shelters” or “facilities.” They are “people” being held in “prisons.”

The New York Times, the Associated Press, The Washington Post and all the other news outlets that call these people “migrants” do their readers, our country, and the world a grave disservice by so consistently using this inaccurate language. And in doing so, they insult the helpless people upon whom they report.

The “millions of illegal aliens” whom Donald, the john, Trump says will be arrested and deported — if not last week, or this week, then the next — are not “migrants.” Migrants move from place to place, like Bedouins. The term could be applied, accurately, to migrant farmworkers, who follow the harvests.

But people who hold down jobs for years in the United States, with or without papers, are not migrants. They are immigrants to our country and emigrants from where they were born.

Also, people can leave a “shelter,” or a “facility.” They cannot leave a “jail” or a “prison.” To call the concentration camps on our border “shelters,” or “facilities,” is whitewashing on a grand scale.

I don’t care whether the “facility” is run by a church or a private corporation: If the children and mothers inside are not allowed to leave, it’s not a “shelter” or a “facility:” It’s a jail, under U.S. law, if the children and mothers are confined there for less than a year, and if they’re held for more than a year, it’s a prison.

These word choices may seem small things, but they are not. George Orwell, in “Politics and the English Language,” called such language pretentious and meaningless. It is also deceptive.

I sent an early version of this column, as a letter, to The New York Times, asking them to look hard at, and reconsider, their use of the word “migrant.” I never heard back from the Times.

I sent a similar request to The Associated Press. Never heard back from them either.

Look, my friends: The hundreds of thousands of Mexican- and Central American-born families who live in our country today are not “migrants.” They came here to stay. They are not ranging over the open plains, searching for wild goats to kill and eat.

They are people. They hold down jobs. They pay rent. Their children study what our schools teach them.

I never thought I would live to see the day when our country’s major newspapers would kowtow to a racist president, as they are doing, through a simple choice of words.


Families who have lived in Brooklyn, St. Louis, Chicago, Houston, Dallas, Sacramento, Los Angeles, San Diego, Wichita, Omaha, Seattle — families who have paid rent for decades, given birth to U.S. children who go to our schools, learn our laws and language as their own, and learn our professed, so-called values, are not migrants. They are us.

Words count, my friends.

Debased, traduced, twisted and belied as they are, words do mean something. Or Used To.

These people are not migrants. They are human beings.

(Courthouse News editor Robert Kahn wrote the first history of U.S. immigration prisons, “Other People’s Blood: U.S. Immigration Prisons in the Reagan Decade,” Westview Press/HarperCollins, 1996.)

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