Republicans Watch Their Language in Immigration Debate

When he took to the floor of the U.S. House to speak about undocumented immigrants two years ago, Republican Representative Ted Poe of Texas said “illegals” were draining the health-care system, and lamented that those with an “anchor baby” could get welfare benefits.

By the time he participated in a hearing about immigration earlier this year, Poe’s language had changed considerably. He spoke of a “broken” system that can be exploited both by “people who are coming here to better themselves” and those who enter to commit crimes.

“Many people come into the United States the right way -- they never go home,” Poe said at a Feb. 5 House Judiciary Committee hearing. “I mean, why would they?”

The shift is just one example of how the language of the immigration debate has moderated along with the political tides. A growing group of Republicans are adopting a softer tone on the issue with the recognition that their old rhetoric, as much as their policy positions, alienated Hispanic voters and undermined their message.

That means phrases such as “amnesty” for “illegals” or “aliens” and “anchor babies,” a reference to U.S.-born children of immigrants lacking proper authorization, are mostly out. Terms such as “undocumented immigrants,” for those without legal standing, providing a way to obtain “earned legal status,” and fixing a “broken system” are in.

Republican strategists and some lawmakers pressing for immigration changes have been privately lobbying lawmakers to clean up their rhetoric as Congress begins considering a revision of immigration laws.

Making Amends

Words alone won’t be sufficient. Republican officials argue that if they are to win presidential and more statewide races, they must act to build consensus within their party for changing immigration laws. Even those who don’t embrace the legislative effort recognize that less vitriolic language is critical to making amends with Hispanic voters while reassuring law-and-order-minded Republicans who have opposed previous immigration overhauls.

Their task has taken on added urgency following the April 15 Boston Marathon bombings, alleged to have been carried out by legal immigrants of Chechen descent. Their status heightened concerns about the bill’s national security implications, prompting some calls for delay. Those issues were spotlighted yesterday at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, where Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano testified that rewriting immigration laws would enhance security.

“Do use ‘undocumented immigrant’ when referring to those here without documentation,” admonishes a list of “do’s and don’ts” distributed to lawmakers by the Republican-aligned Hispanic Leadership Network. “Don’t use the word ‘‘illegals’’ or ‘‘aliens,’’ or the term ‘‘anchor baby.’’

Be Practical

Republicans are also counseled to accentuate practical solutions rather than complaints when talking about their stances on immigration-law changes.

‘‘Do acknowledge that ‘Our current immigration system is broken and we need to fix it,’’’ the memo advises. ‘‘Don’t begin with ‘We are against amnesty,’’’ because doing so ‘‘is interpreted as being against any reform.’’

Leaders of the group have been coaching Republicans on their immigration lexicon in closed door meetings since shortly after the November elections that demonstrated the power of the Hispanic electorate. Republican nominee Mitt Romney won 27 percent of Hispanics, the fastest growing voting bloc, compared with President Barack Obama’s 71 percent.

Bipartisan Measure

The change is on vivid display on Capitol Hill, where a group of eight senators -- four Republicans and four Democrats - - last week unveiled a sweeping measure that would ultimately give 11 million undocumented immigrants a means of obtaining citizenship, tighten border security, and create programs and priorities for admitting future immigrants to live and work in the U.S.

‘‘The language has been much better since the election and that’s important,” Jennifer Korn, the executive director of the Hispanic Leadership Network, said in an interview. “If we’re going to have a professional discourse on this and you’re talking about people who are elected to office, then we shouldn’t be throwing around slang terms.”

“It’s not about name-calling,” Korn added. “Let’s talk about what we need to resolve.”

Electrified Fence

To many Republican strategists, the 2012 presidential election was a case study in the wrong immigration message and language, from primary contender Herman Cain’s comments about building an “electrified fence” on the southern border to Romney’s assertion that “illegals” would “self-deport” when faced with stricter workplace verification measures. Romney attracted the lowest share of Hispanic votes for a Republican in 16 years.

Republican polling expert Frank Luntz, who has long counseled lawmakers in his party on framing the immigration issue, wrote earlier this year in an opinion piece published in the Washington Post that “because of oft-repeated phrases such as ‘illegal aliens,’ Hispanic voters don’t think Republicans like, welcome or respect them. So how can they vote Republican?”

The shift in Washington lags changing public attitudes, which robbed the terms of some of their power, said political scientist Franklin D. Gilliam Jr., the dean of the Luskin School of Public Affairs at the University of California Los Angeles.

“The public moved first -- people increasingly moved away from punitive language around immigration reform to what you might call more practical or reasonable language,” said Gilliam, who has studied the framing of the immigration debate.

Delicate Tightrope

Republicans now “have a very delicate tightrope to walk: On the one hand, they don’t want to stray too far on their central tenets. But on the other hand, they understand that this rhetorical language -- anchor babies, illegal immigrants -- becomes understood as code language for intolerance and racism.”

The new immigration lexicon is also key to building support for change among core Republican voters. Proponents of a broad rewrite are shying away from the word “amnesty” and the phrases “path to citizenship” and “comprehensive immigration reform” because they provoke negative reactions among their party base.

“People have very hard, set, preconceived concepts of what some of those words may mean,” said Representative Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida, one of four Republicans working on an immigration plan. “People just stop listening when they hear them.”

Paul Plan

Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, a prospective 2016 Republican presidential candidate, pushed back when media reports called his plan to tie stricter border security to eventual legal status for undocumented immigrants a “path to citizenship,” even though the plan he backs would eventually allow them to apply to become citizens.

Paul said that language conjures up images of a special deal for undocumented immigrants that would give them a new avenue for becoming citizens that doesn’t exist today -- a concept he said that House Republican would oppose.

“We have to figure out what we need to do to be able to say ‘no new pathway,’ because that’s what people want to hear, and so I think if you can say that, you have a better chance of passing it,” Paul said in an April 17 interview.

Republican Representative Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, chairman of the Judiciary Committee panel that oversees immigration, said he’s been working in private meetings with other lawmakers to banish the use of such buzzwords from the debate.

Challenging Colleagues

During one session last week, Gowdy and Republican Representative Raul Labrador of Idaho, another member of the bipartisan House group, questioned a colleague’s use of the word “amnesty,” suggesting that the current dysfunctional immigration system effectively offers undocumented immigrants a chance to stay indefinitely.

“Raul and I asked, ‘Define what you mean by that,’ because the word that starts with ‘a’ -- you can make a compelling argument that that’s the status quo,” Gowdy said in an interview. “You can tell early on in conversations, with the phraseology that is used, whether or not there is an interest in a real discussion.”

Some notable holdouts have strayed from the new immigration script, and some opponents of change are clinging to their familiar language because they are convinced it provides an advantage in the debate.

The issue came up at a recent private meeting of about 10 Republican senators and congressman to discuss immigration.

‘Those People’

One senator counseled the group that, “we needed to be careful about the language we used,” said Republican Representative Steve King of Iowa, who attended the meeting. The example given, he said, was to avoid the use of the phrase “those people” to describe undocumented immigrants.

While King said he has made a point since to avoid the phrase, the episode left him concerned that the “language police” were seeking to deprive him and other opponents of the proposed legislation of verbiage that could bolster their case.

“If we let people who are for open borders and against the rule of law define the language we can use, they will then prohibit any language that’s effective in the debate,” King said.

King said he won’t stop using the phrase “illegal alien” for describing immigrants unlawfully living in the country because it appears in immigration statutes. “It’s accurate, objective, and it’s not pejorative,” he said.

If people object, the Iowa congressman added, “maybe I should say ‘undocumented Democrats,’ transforming them into ‘documented Democrats.’ That would be more descriptive,” King said. “I don’t know if it’s kinder and gentler, or not.”

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