The word had come down from the U.S. Department of Justice last summer: people who enter the country without authorization are to be referred to as “illegal aliens,” not “undocumented immigrants.” So when Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker was in Austin Tuesday to give a pep talk to the U.S. attorneys there, and he referred to these immigrants ten times as “illegal aliens,” and once resorted to a slang term that is sometimes considered racist as he described Austin as a Top 20 city, with “over 100,000 illegals” living in the area.
Immigrant advocates for years have tried to dissuade people from using terms like “illegal alien” or “illegal immigrant” because a person cannot of themselves be illegal. A person can commit an illegal act, such as entering the country without authorization or in violation of the law. Terms such as these, advocates say, dehumanize immigrants. The Associated Press in 2013 removed the term “illegal alien” from proper usage for journalists for this very reason.
But the Department of Justice memo says that since the word “undocumented” does not appear in the U.S. Code, attorneys and public information officers should refer to people who enter the country illegally as “illegal aliens.” In the most literal sense, this may be true, but it also advances the Trump Administration’s efforts to portray all immigrants who enter the country illegally as part of a force of darkness.
“More important than the financial cost we pay is the cost we pay in American lives. Massive illegal immigration makes all of us less safe,” Whitaker told the attorneys.
“We know that the vast majority of the cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, and fentanyl that are killing record numbers of Americans was not made in this country. It came over the Southern border. We also know that vicious gangs like MS-13 recruit new members from the tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors who cross our border illegally every year. The result is that Americans die every year because we do not have a secure Southern border.” He did not mention that MS-13 got its start on the streets of Los Angeles.
Whitaker pointed to the case of Juan Lopez in Austin. Lopez last month was sentenced to 49 years in prison for raping a family friend as the woman’s child watched. Lopez had been deported after serving a sentence for homicide and then re-entered the country illegally. “It is a crushing failure to secure our border and just one example of where we can do better.”
Without giving exact details, Whitaker said the U.S. Border Patrol had apprehended more than 50,000 people in the past two months who have crossed the U.S. border illegally from Mexico, including 23,000 people in family units. “That’s the size of a small city every single month.” He said the estimated 11 million people living in the United States illegally is equal to the population of Georgia.
Whitaker repeatedly emphasized the prosecution of people who enter the country illegally, but he never mentioned President Trump’s push for a border wall. He did, however, criticize federal courts that have blocked Trump’s efforts to block immigration.
Whitaker took no questions from the news media gathered for the event. It was one-way messaging. Journalists did not have a chance to ask about the wall or whether Whitaker thought the millions of people already living in the country illegally should be deported. We didn’t get a chance to ask whether immigration reform laws would ameliorate the situation. There were no questions about reports that he is under consideration to serve as the president’s chief of staff, or the status of a Department of Justice investigation into whether Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke used his office for personal gain.
Whitaker’s time in office is short. Former Attorney General William Barr has been nominated by Trump to replace former Attorney General Jeff Sessions. But while he holds the office, Whitaker should know a news conference without questions is just a dog and pony show that depends on media complicity.