Immigrants, filesharing and wiretaps: How newspapers use the word illegal

People should mind their language: an apparently neutral term like immigration has gotten xenophobic overtones as a result of its frequent use in combination with illegal, James Gingel argued in the Guardian. As an illustration, he pointed out that illegal, when typed into a Google search box, will likely get autocompleted to illegal immigrant or illegal immigration.

Earlier, the Guardian had been criticised for using the term illegal immigrant, among other things because it’s dehumanising. David Marsh of the Guardian Style Guide agreed. (The Style Guide itself takes a rather technical position on the matter: «… there is no such thing as an illegal asylum seeker … An asylum seeker can become an illegal immigrant only if he or she remains in Britain after having failed to respond to a removal notice.»)

Personally, I’d be in favour of reappropriating the term illegal immigrant - but it’s not for me to tell other people what strategy to use.

So how does the Guardian use the word illegal? I counted the words that follow the word illegal in their articles. I ignored stop words and in most cases I used stemming to lump together words like download, downloads, and downloading (see Method below).

The chart shows that the term illegal is most often used in combination with immigrant and variants. Other than that, it appears that illegal filesharing is a 2009 thing and that illegal phone [hacking] was an issue in 2011. Unsurprisingly, the expression illegal war started being used in 2003. By the way, what’s the status of that trial?

There’s also a bit of a peak in mentions of illegal thing in 2000. This can be attributed to a series of interviews in which one of the standard questions was «What was the last illegal thing you did?» The answers are somewhat boring, with the exception of «Shot a man in Reno just to watch him die» (a reference to Johnny Cash, of course).

The Guardian’s search API is largely limited to articles that appeared after 1998. For a longer term perspective, let’s turn to the New York Times, which offers access to the lead paragraphs of articles dating back to it’s origin in 1851.

That’s weird: expressions with the term illegal seem to have been rare until the 1970s. Either that, or I made an error in my analysis of the NYT data. I checked their own Chronicle tool, which confirms that the term illegal wasn’t used very much before the 1970s.

Again, the term illegal is mainly used in combination with aliens (1980s) and immigrants (2000s), but such uses seem to have dropped in the 2010s. My guess would be that this has to do with the growing importance of the «Latino vote», which means that politicians can no longer evoke negative images of immigrants without risking electoral consequences.

Speaking of vote: the expression illegal vote is one of the rare uses of the term illegal in the early days of the New York Times. Illegal voting appears to have been a recurrent concern in 19th century New York, as illustrated by a report from 1888:

Notwithstanding the widespread reports to the contrary and the wholesale issue of warrants for the arrest of illegal voters yesterday’s election in King’s County passed off without unusual excitement.

Tracking the use of the expression illegal strike provides an interesting insight into American social history: wildcat teachers’ strikes in the 1960s, broader public sector strikes in the 1970s and Reagan’s brutal standoff with air traffic controllers in the 1980s. Despite the progressive reputation it enjoys today, the New York Times often sided with law and order, for example in this 1962 report:

It was not a day New York City could be proud of. Half of the city’s 40,000 public school teachers had chosen an outlaw course and stayed away from their classrooms in an illegal strike. (If you’re wondering why public sector workers resorted to illegal strikes, read this article.)

The 1970s saw a modest peak in the use of the expression illegal wiretaps, often in connection with Watergate. In an article from 1974, the question was raised «whether President Nixon may have knowingly used claims of national security to cloak illegal wiretaps and other illegal surveillance». How modern.

So here’s my preliminary, non-scientific conclusion: newspapers appear to use the term illegal mainly to talk about immigrants, but when those in power really mess up, their actions will occasionally be called illegal too.

Method

I used the search APIs of the Guardian and the New York Times to search for articles with the search term illegal. I counted the words following the term illegal, using the Python nltk library to exclude English stop words and to reduce words to their stem. A practical matter is that stemming will reduce both immigrant and immigration to immigr. Since some of the arguments against using the expression illegal immigrant do not apply to illegal immigration, it makes sense to differentiate between immigration and immigrant. Therefore, I separately counted occurances of the expression illegal immigrant[s]. Here’s the code.

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