Donald Trump
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

As the Republican Party began to embrace its nativist base in order to justify the fight against comprehensive immigration reform, they employed language that was meant to spread fear and to divide us. As we head into what looks to be a major fight over the Dreamers in the next few weeks, it will be increasingly important to watch their language and what it signals about their intentions. I thought it might be helpful to provide a rundown of words/phrases to look out for.

Illegal immigrants, illegal aliens, and/or criminal aliens

These are the words Republicans use when talking about “undocumented immigrants” because they lay the ground work for the kind of lies Trump tells about immigrants being dangerous. Typically, Republicans have acknowledged that, regardless of how one feels about undocumented immigrants, the Dreamers are in a different category because they were brought here as children through no fault of their own. That is why it will be important to keep an eye on whether this kind of language continues to be used to describe Dreamers.


For decades now “amnesty” has been code for giving those “criminal aliens” a pass. Republican insisted that the 2013 comprehensive immigration bill provided amnesty when in actuality, it established a “pathway to citizenship” that protected undocumented people from deportation while they “got in line” for citizenship.

13-year path to citizenship: After DHS sets its enforcement goals, undocumented immigrants who have been here since before December 31, 2011 can apply for registered provisional immigrant status. If they pass the background check and pay a fine ($500 up front), this status allows them to work lawfully in the U.S. After 10 years, those with provisional status are eligible for permanent status. Three years later, they can finally apply for citizenship. Over the course of the 10-year period undocumented immigrants will pay $2,000 in fines plus taxes, and must demonstrate knowledge of civics and English.

Republicans who have demonstrated over and over again that they are not interested in protecting Dreamers use the same lie when it comes to DACA. Here is Sen. Tom Cotten referring to the bipartisan Graham-Durbin agreement on DACA:

Whenever you hear Republicans referring to Dreamers as “illegal aliens” or talking about DACA as “amnesty,” you can be certain that they are trying to muddy the water with fear and lies. It is interesting that, upon passage of the agreement to end the shutdown, that is exactly what Majority Leader McConnell did.

Chain Migration

We’ve already established that there are some Republicans who simply want to use the Dreamers as leverage to force changes to our legal immigration system. For them, coming up with scary-sounding words to describe those programs is a necessary component. Such is the case with referring to “chain migration” instead of family-based immigration visas.

Visa Lottery

Another program the immigration hardliners want to get rid of is the Diversity Visa program, which they call the “visa lottery.” The president has been particularly vicious when lying about this program.

Merit-based immigration system

I pointed out previously that this is a dog-whistle for a race-based immigration system centered on country of origin. Trump gave that one away when he said he didn’t want immigrants coming from “shithole” countries, but preferred those from countries like Norway.

As we go forward on a debate about Dreamers and immigration, those are some of the key words Republicans will likely use that are a give-away about their intentions. Whenever they refer to Dreamers as “illegal immigrants’ or use words like “amnesty,” “chain migration,” “visa lottery,” or “merit-based immigration,” you can be sure that we are dealing with people who are not approaching the discussion honestly. Instead, they are trying to mislead and divide us with their favorite tool—fear.

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