Negative Judicial Metaphors Harm Immigrants

Fordham Law in Immigration Daily, March 17, 2011

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by Jason Dzubow

A recent article in the Fordham Law Review posits that negative metaphors used by judges to describe immigrants contribute to negative public perceptions of immigrants and lead to adverse judicial decisions.

In Alien Language: Immigration Metaphors and the Jurisprudence of Otherness, Keith Cunningham-Parmeter discusses different metaphors used in judicial decisions related to immigration.  The most common metaphors can be classified into three categories: (1) Immigrants are aliens; (2) Immigrants are a flood; and (3) Immigrants are invaders.  Each of these metaphors carries negative associations–for example, floods cause us to drown; invaders try to kill us.  Employing these metaphors, writes Mr. Cunningham-Parmeter, affects how we think about immigrants, which in turn affects judicial decisions.

One set of figures cited in the article struck me as particularly noteworthy—In examining 4,200 federal cases related to immigration, Mr. Cunningham-Parmeter found that the phrase most commonly used to describe immigrants was “illegal alien:”

“[I]llegal alien” was “by far the most common term, appearing in 69% of opinions (2905 cases).  No other term appeared in more than 10% of opinions, except “undocumented alien,” which accounted for 16% of the results in 670 cases. 

It seems likely that the overwhelming use of negative metaphors for immigrants would impact how judges think about people who are in the U.S. illegally.  This, of course, could result in more adverse decisions. 

To counter these negative metaphors, Mr. Cunningham-Parmeter proposes some positive metaphors; words that connote entrepreneurial economic migrants (i.e., people with the get-up-and-go necessary to cross borders and start new, productive lives):

[M]igrants are neither criminals nor invaders, but instead people who cross international borders in order to survive.  As such, the economic sanctuary metaphor brings focus to the human consequence of globalization.

I certainly appreciate the effort to de-stigmatize immigrants (and in writing this blog post, I find myself avoiding the term “alien,” a term of art defined in the INA, but also a metaphor with negative connotations).  In the end, though, I am skeptical that we can replace existing metaphors with something more benign.  There is a tribal aspect to these metaphors that is deeply ingrained.  We do tend to view outsiders as “invaders” and as a threat.  Maybe that is just the way of human nature.  Or, hopefully, I am wrong, and Mr. Cunningham-Parmeter’s article will help plant a seed that will lead to a more positive—and constructive—view of people who immigrate to the United States.