Euphemisms in the Immigration Debate

Political debate in the modern world is only possible after memorizing a list of euphemisms, and there is no shortage of public opprobrium for those who talk about certain topics without using them. In addition to the many euphemisms that virtually everybody accepts, the political left has its own set associated with political correctness, while the political right has its own set linked to patriotic correctness. Euphemisms serve as signals of political-tribal membership and as a means to convince ambivalent voters to support one policy. Violating the other political tribe's euphemisms can even help a candidate get elected President. This post explores why people use euphemisms in political debate and whether that effort is worthwhile.

Euphemisms change over time. Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker termed this linguist evolution the "euphemism treadmill" and, thirty years ago, argued that replacing old terms with new ones was likely inspired by the false theory that language influences thoughts, a notion that has been long discredited by cognitive scientists. Pinker described how those who board the euphemism treadmill can never step off:

People invent new "polite" words to refer to emotionally laden or distasteful things, but the euphemism becomes tainted by association and the new one that must be found acquires its own negative connotations.

Few political debates are as riddled with euphemisms as immigration. The accurate legal term "illegal alien," which was once said without political bias and is now almost exclusively used by nativists, was replaced with "illegal immigrant," which was supplanted by "undocumented immigrant" and, in rarer cases, "unauthorized immigrant." Some nativists are trying to frame illegal immigration as an invasion with increasing frequency, but they haven't settled on a term besides "invasion," which is often coupled with a prefix like "border," "migrant," or "illegal." The last is particularly entertaining because invasions aren't "legal." Proponents of the new term "undocumented immigrant" argue that nobody can be illegal, so the term "illegal immigrant" is inaccurate as well as rude. Of course, nobody is undocumented either because they lack the specific immigration documents required for legal residency and employment. Many have driver's licenses, debit cards, library cards, and school IDs, which are useful documents in specific contexts but not nearly so much for immigration. "Misdocumented immigrant" would be better if the goal were accuracy, but the goal is to change people's opinions on emotional topics by changing their words.

In the immigration debate, the euphemism treadmill can sometimes run in reverse and make political language harsher. This "cacophemism cliff" turned "birthright citizenship" into "anchor baby" and "liberalized immigration" into "open borders."

In the long run, stepping onto the euphemism treadmill can seem like a fool's errand. As Pinker explains, people's feelings toward the replaced term are merely transferred to the euphemism because we all have concepts that we use words to describe, but we don't use words to invent new concepts. The concept-to-word cognitive production process only affects the output's sound, not its meaning.

Framing – "Undocumented Immigrants" or "Illegal Aliens"

Not all is lost for exercisers on the euphemism treadmill. They have to lower their expectations and be satisfied with framing political discourse rather than the quixotic goal of changing concepts with words. Framing is a psychological technique that can influence the perception of social phenomena, a political or social movement, or a leader. Research in political psychology has shown that framing makes certain beliefs accessible in memory upon exposure to a particular frame. Once certain beliefs are activated through the mechanism of framing, they affect all the subsequent information processing. An example of framing's power to affect perception is that opinions about a Ku Klux Klan rally vary depending on whether it is framed as a public safety or free speech issue.

Framing can steer public opinion in opposite directions of the political spectrum. The "undocumented immigrant" frame will invoke different beliefs from the "illegal alien" frame. Specifically, the former describes the issue as a bureaucratic government problem with paperwork that afflicts ordinary immigrants. The latter frames it as a law and order problem with foreigners. These two euphemisms, although meant to represent the same concept, do so in different ways that convey different messages and will pull the audience in different directions. Most people sympathize with those caught up in a cruel bureaucratic morass but are much less sympathetic to foreign lawbreakers.

Following this logic, a policy proposal titled "path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants" is going to attract more support than "amnesty for illegal aliens." Both "path to citizenship" and "amnesty" mean legalization. However, the term "legalization" implies that there has been something illegal about that group of people, an association that many proponents want to avoid. "Path to citizenship" is a much softer frame that invokes positive emotions. On the other side of the debate, "legalization" has been replaced with "amnesty," which has a more negative meaning. Proponents and users of the term "amnesty" emphasize that it is a pardon for an offense rather than a fix for a bureaucratic problem. "Pathway to citizenship" is also sometimes replaced by "earned legalization" or "comprehensive immigration reform." These two expressions bring up considerations about legality and reform, which are far more cognitively charged than "path to citizenship" and, therefore, less likely to be used by supporters of such policies.

Dog Whistles and the Threat Frame: "Extreme Vetting," "Migrant/Border/Illegal Invasion," and "Anchor Baby"

Euphemisms can help legitimize otherwise prejudiced rhetoric. Consider "extreme vetting," a phrase that has been referred to as a euphemism for "discrimination against Muslims." Using this particular euphemism helps one accomplish two goals. First, it helps separate oneself from blatant discrimination based on religion or national origin, which is important because people are increasingly sensitive to social desirability and so are unwilling to express bluntly prejudiced beliefs. Thus, masking such prejudice under a neutral euphemism is rather useful. Second, it still conveys the overall message of hostility to the audience receptive to such rhetoric – also known as a dog whistle. Therefore, you can indicate your own beliefs and connect the audience with similar beliefs without coming across as being bluntly prejudiced.

A somewhat similar idea is behind the "migrant/border/illegal invasion" term, which goes even further by invoking a threat frame. Threats could be powerful tools since people tend to overestimate risks and support policies that minimize them regardless of cost. Threat frames like "migrant/border/illegal invasion" negatively bias listeners against illegal immigration.

An important effect of threat frame euphemisms is that they can dehumanize and attach negative attitudes to certain groups. Consider the euphemisms "anchor baby" and "catch and release." "Anchor baby" stands for children born to foreign nationals who are in violation of their immigration status while on U.S. soil. Those children have automatic citizenship under the U.S. Constitution. Such children are called "anchor babies" to highlight the idea that their parents use them to secure their stay in the country. The term dehumanizes both the parents and their children by describing these individuals through association with an inanimate object, the "anchor," and that the only purpose for the existence of the children is to resolve the parent's problem with immigration law. Threat frames also extend to other criminal activity related to immigrants.

There are examples of other indirect expressions that are not euphemisms. Let us consider "catch and release" and "sanctuary city." "Catch and release" describes an act of apprehending illegal immigrants and subsequently releasing them. A "sanctuary city" is a city that limits its cooperation with federal immigration enforcement. Both sides of the immigration debate use these two and do not have a positive or a negative substitute. The problem with them is that both terms might as well pertain to the "animal kingdom" domain, which can be demeaning and humiliating when applied to people. "Catch and release" brings up associations with fishing and hunting, thus dehumanizing those who are caught and released. Similarly, "sanctuary" is frequently used to describe a wildlife refuge. Similar to the "anchor baby," they are dehumanizing. Both of these euphemistic expressions, although not meant to do any harm and not created by political elites, could generate unfavorable attitudes.

Euphemisms as Subliminal Primes

Euphemisms are effective as subliminal primes because they are short and compact expressions. Priming is an instrument that activates preconscious expectations, according to research in political psychology. Priming is similar to framing but has important differences because it invokes an automatic reaction without the reader having to read through the entire article. Even a split-second glimpse at the title has a priming effect. As opposed to frames, primes require less time and less cognitive effort to shift public opinion successfully. Primes color the perception of all information that follows the prime.

Consider the hypothetical article titles: "Birthright Citizenship for Children of Undocumented Immigrants" versus "Illegal Alien Anchor Babies." These two titles have similar meanings but different priming effects. The first is pro‐​immigration bias primed, whereas the second will have the opposite direction bias.

Euphemisms that act as primes are particularly meaningful for citizens who are ambivalent about immigration. Consider a relatively more liberal person who is undecided on immigration. By encountering a random piece of news that uses "undocumented immigrants" instead of "illegal aliens," an ambivalent voter is more likely to form a pro-immigration bias at a rather early stage because of his greater innate support for fairness, which is offended by the unequal distribution of documents. At the same time, a relatively more conservative person who is undecided about immigration is far more likely to be swayed by the term "illegal alien" because of their greater support for order and structure, which is offended by illegality.


This post explores the theoretical base of using euphemisms as tools of influence. Although there is some excellent research into these issues related to immigration, it is a field crying out for more experimental and empirical inquiry. Laboratory experiments with human subjects could confirm the effectiveness of specific euphemisms for primes or frames. Since such studies are often criticized for their external validity, a follow-up study that combines relevant media content analysis with opinion polls showing changes in attitudes could also be useful.

An underexplored possibility is how euphemisms and frames affect political debate by spreading confusion. People accustomed to the term "illegal immigrant" to describe foreign-born persons who are currently unlawfully residing in the United States might initially fail to react as negatively to the term "undocumented immigrant" merely because they don't know what it means. As soon as they know what it means, however, the negative feelings they associate with "illegal immigrant" would probably attach to the term "illegal alien." Another is how euphemisms build walls around political tribes and prevent them from talking to each other, thus deepening policy divisions that prevent middle-ground policy resolutions.

My takeaway from the above is that people should stop running on the euphemism treadmill and reduce their time thinking of clever frames or primes. They should focus more on clearly communicating their ideas, listening to criticisms, and respectfully responding. Euphemisms, frames, and primes cannot be excised from public debate, nor should we try to do so because they can be very valuable at times, but people focus too much on them while neglecting clarity.

This substack is an update of a blog post at Cato-at-Liberty.


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