The contentious topic of immigration has been in the news the past few weeks. The Trump administration allegedly directed two government agencies – DSH, the Department of Homeland Security, and ICE – Immigration and Customs Enforcement – to separate children from their parents at several different border checkpoints in Texas. Public outcry has led to policy changes and the reunification of most of these families. However, the crisis highlighted years of discrimination against immigrants going back to the founding of this country. This sort of discrimination against immigrants has been alive and well in Europe for hundreds of years as well.
Clues of this type of discrimination can be found in the metaphors used to describe immigrants. While many are neutral terms, others are clearly negative in their connotations. A few years ago, the blogger David Shariatmadari wrote a nice article entitled “Swarms, floods and marauders: the toxic metaphors of the migration debate” on how negative metaphors in England are used against immigrants using such terms as swarms or floods of migrants or describing them as marauders. Also, a recent article in the Atlantic by Franklin Foer describes “How ICE Went Rogue,” detailing how ICE agents have become increasingly aggressive in arresting and deporting immigrants regardless of their legal or illegal immigration status. Formerly, ICE agents were restricted by government policies as to whom they could arrest. After Donald Trump became president, ICE officials claimed that their handcuffs were removed.
I have discussed metaphors of immigration in past blog posts but I thought it was time to take a fresh look. I originally thought that most immigration metaphors were negative, such as those listed above, but recently I have found examples of neutral metaphors, i.e., those that simply describe immigrants or immigration issues without negative connotations. What follows is a short list of metaphors from several different concepts including war, insects, animals, nature, rivers and oceans. For clarity, I indicate whether each type of metaphor is neutral or negative. I include examples from recent news articles with links to each source. Some examples are excerpts from articles; others are merely headlines. Italics are mine.
War/Military Operations – Negative
I found a few examples of metaphors from wars or military operations to describe immigrants. In addition to the marauder example mentioned earlier, I found evidence of politicians describing their countries as being under siege, under attack or being on the front lines of the battle with immigrants.
Example: “British towns are being ‘swamped’ by immigrants, and their residents are ‘under siege’, Michael Fallon, the UK defence secretary, said on Sunday.” (source: The Financial Times)
Example: “Trump Uses Language of Exterminators in Attack on ‘Illegal Immigrants’” (source: New Yorker Magazine)
Example: “A town at the front lines of the migrant crisis: ‘We can’t let them die’” (source: the Los Angeles Times)
Insects and Animals – Negative
Sadly, large groups of immigrants coming into a country are often compared to bothersome insects or animals. Donald Trump recently compared immigrants to animals that were infestingour country. I include his tweet below along with a stunning criticism of this language usage by blogger Josh Marshall. I also include examples of swarminginsects and stampeding cattle as suggested by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Finally, I include the controversial example of Donald Trump calling some immigrants animals. In his defense, he was referring to the violent MS-13 gang members, not all immigrants.
Example: “Democrats are the problem. They don’t care about crime and want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our Country, like MS-13. They can’t win on their terrible policies, so they view them as potential voters!” (source: New Yorker Magazine)
“Josh Marshall makes the unavoidable historical connection:
‘The use of the word ‘infest’ to talk about people is literally out of the Nazi/anti-Semites’ playbook for talking about the Jewish threat. It was also a standard for talking about Chinese in the western United States and it remains part of the vocabulary for talking about Romani (Gypsies) in parts of Europe. This is the most hard-boiled kind of racist demagogic language, the kind that in other parts of the world has often preceded and signaled the onset of exterminationist violence. The verb ‘to infest’ is one generally used to describe insects or vermin (rats), creatures which are literally exterminated when they become present in a house or building or neighborhood.'”
Example: “David Cameron criticised over migrant ‘swarm’ language” (source: BBC)
Example: “We have people coming into the country, or trying to come in — and we’re stopping a lot of them — but we’re taking people out of the country. You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people. These are animals.” (source: New York Times)
Example: “We are not going to let this country be overwhelmed,” Sessions told the press at a Wednesday news conference. “People are not going [to] caravan or otherwise stampede our border. We need legality and integrity in the system. People should wait their turn, ask to apply lawfully before they enter our country. So we’re sending a message worldwide.” (Source: Newsweek)
Nature – Neutral
It is very common to use our experiences with nature to describe abstract processes. With immigration issues, I found many examples of metaphors based on trees and erosion of hills to describe these issues, including problems that have a root cause or are deep rooted, grassroots opposition to the Trump administration’s immigration policies, the erosion of national security or the danger of going down a slippery slope to beginning to take away civil rights of Americans.
Example: “There are an estimated 11m-12m immigrants living in the United States illegally, most of them Latino. Many have families, jobs and property, and far deeper roots in America than in their countries of origin.” (source: The Economist)
Example: “From ‘angry grandmas’ to lemonade stands: How grass-roots groups stepped in to help separated families” (source: CNN)
Example: “Letter: To curb illegal immigration, find the root cause” (source: The Chicago Tribune)
Example: “President Donald Trump’s recent tweets against open borders come as no surprise. Indeed, even fervent immigration advocates worry that open borders would lower the wages of low-skilled natives, erode national security, and overburden the social safety net.” (source: USA Today)
Example: “The slippery slope of the Trump administration’s political embrace of calling MS-13 ‘animals’” (source: The Washington Post)
Nature – Negative
There are also a few examples of metaphors of nature with negative connotations. Since some immigrants come into countries illegally, they often hide from authorities and can be described as living in the shadows. The difficult social and economic problems of immigration are sometimes called thorny issues while these immigration issues can be compared to a swamp or quagmire. Sadly, movements of immigrants into a country may be compared to a natural disaster such as an avalanche.
Example: “Illustrations tell story of family ‘living in the shadows’ because of illegal immigration” (source: West Palm Beach TV)
Example: “The Thorny Economics of Illegal Immigration” (source: The Wall Street Journal)
Example: “Republicans caught in immigration quagmire” (source: USimmigration.com)
Example: “Spain set for ‘avalanche’ of African immigrants” (source: The Local)
Rivers and Oceans – Neutral
Movement of people is often compared to the movement of water in rivers or oceans. These metaphors can be both neutral or negative in their connotations. A few neutral metaphors include having a wave, tide or steady stream of immigrants. The word influx is of Latin origin meaning “flowing in.” Thus we also find an influx of immigrants in news articles. We can also see a ripple effect of one event influencing another. In this case, we see the ripple effect of immigration policies on the lives of immigrants.
Example: “The United States experienced major waves of immigration during the colonial era, the first part of the 19th century and from the 1880s to 1920.” (source: history.com)
Example: “The Deadly Cost of Turning Back the Immigration Tide” (source: the Daily Beast)
Example: “Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas economists estimate that immigrants and their children comprised more than half of the US workforce growth in the last 20 years and expect this group to make up an even larger percentage over the next 20 years. And, according to Pew Research Center, without a steady stream of a total of 18 million immigrants between now and 2035, the share of the US working-age population could decrease to 166 million.” (source: CNN)
Example: “Illegal Immigration Influx Continues — 50,000 Attempt Border Crossing for Second Straight Month” (source: townhall.com)
Example: “The deadly ripple effect of harsh immigration policies” (source: open democracy.net)
Rivers and Oceans – Negative
We can also find examples of water movement metaphors with a negative connotation. As we saw with an avalanche of immigrants, some metaphors compare immigrant movements to natural disasters, this time caused by rivers or oceans. Thus, we can find examples of politicians trying to stem the flow of immigrants, being swamped or flooded by immigrants. In an extreme example, we can also talk about a tsunami of immigrants as if they are causing great damage and destruction.
stem the flow
Example: “TRUMP’S WALL ISN’T GOING TO STEM THE FLOW OF UNDOCUMENTED IMMIGRANTS” (source: Newsweek)
Example: “British towns are being “swamped” by immigrants, and their residents are “under siege”, Michael Fallon, the UK defence secretary, said on Sunday.” (source: The Financial Times)
Example: “Myth No. 1: Undocumented immigrants are flooding into the United States” (source: The Washington Post)
Example: “Immigration crisis: Official: ‘A tsunami of people crossing the border’” (source: Fox News)
The obvious question is why people have such negative attitudes towards immigrants. In the United States, everyone except Native Americans is an immigrant. And yet some politicians, themselves with immigrant backgrounds, set policies restricting movement of immigrants into the country. The usual explanation is that these immigrants are coming into the country illegally whereas their ancestors came legally. However, most immigrants would come legally if the laws were not so restrictive. Almost all migrants go to another country to escape persecution, economic crisis or to create a better life for themselves and their children. My own Irish ancestors came to the United States after the potato famine in Ireland during which thousands of people died from starvation. Many modern immigrants coming into the United States are escaping wars in Central America while those going into Europe and the United Kingdom are escaping brutal conflicts in the Middle East. Who can blame them for trying to survive? I would hope that modern governments accept immigrants into their countries with the same compassion and understanding that was extended to our ancestors.