Newsletter: Opinion: Is calling immigrants ‘aliens’ offensive?

The U.S.-Mexico border fence in Nogales, Ariz.

The U.S.-Mexico border fence in Nogales, Ariz.

(John Moore / Getty Images)

Good morning. It is Saturday, Aug. 15, and I'm Paul Thornton, The Times' letters editor. Here’s a look back at the week in Opinion.

Don't call Jose Antonio Vargas an alien.

The journalist and immigration activist who was brought here from the Philippines as a child was long ago handed a permanent-resident card by a member of his family that called him an "alien" (the card turned out to be a forgery). In an Op-Ed article, he writes that he was never comfortable with the term.

Vargas has campaigned for news organizations to stop using the term "illegal immigrant," describing it as prejudicial and inaccurate. He's had some success -- the Los Angeles Times no longer uses the term in its news stories, and the Associated Press' style guide (a go-to reference for journalists looking for acceptable phrasing) stopped sanctioning "illegal immigrant" in 2013.

Now, Vargas targets "alien," an anachronism that he describes as counterproductive and offensive. Welcoming Gov. Jerry Brown's signing of a bill this week striking "alien" from the state's labor code, Vargas writes:

There are those who say that "alien" is a perfectly fine, neutral term, and that anyone who finds it offensive is playing word police and should just check the dictionary. The second definition, in Merriam Webster: "from another country." Sting's pop song, "Englishman in New York," joyfully repeats "I'm a legal alien" in the chorus. Ian Whitcomb, another English pop singer, wrote a memoir called "Resident Alien."

Usage, however, changes along with social norms. Lawmakers wouldn't dream of using the word "retarded" to describe someone who's intellectually challenged, even though, decades ago, they used it regularly without giving offense. Words can take on negative connotations; "retarded" did — and "alien" has too.

Striking "alien" from the state labor code is a symbolic step that other states and the federal government should follow.

Of course, changing a word here and there can't fully address the tangible problems facing the country's undocumented population. But language frames the political conversation. And more humane language can lead to more humane policies, and vice versa.

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Too bad, say some readers to those who object to "alien": In fact, if you're offended by the word, reader Joseph F. Paggi Jr. of Pasadena is offended that you would take offense. He writes in a letter to the editor published Wednesday: "The word 'alien' is not an insult. This legislation -- an unnecessary and politically correct reinterpretation of a common word -- is an insult to citizens of the United States." L.A. Times

This wasn't supposed to happen: The border fence traps immigrants in the U.S. Getting over, under or around the fence from Mexico isn't prohibitively difficult, writes UC San Diego immigration policy expert Wayne A. Cornelius. Rather, there's evidence to suggest that the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border, in addition to the drug-related violence on the other side of the fence, is preventing migrants from returning home as they often did before. Meanwhile, business is booming for people-smugglers. L.A. Times

Fifty years ago, Watts was smoldering and in chaos, and ex-LAPD sergeant Joseph Wambaugh was there. In his Op-Ed piece, he writes of the anarchy so unrestrained that the police focused more on protecting one another than stopping the violence. In a companion Op-Ed article, UCLA historian Robin D.G. Kelley tells of the civil society and concerted activism that existed in Watts before the rebellion in 1965 and survives today. An editorial laments the stigma that Watts continues to bear.

L.A. will get rid of an airport, but not the one most people would probably like. After a years-long battle by several Inland Empire governments to gain control of Ontario Airport, Los Angeles agreed to relinquish ownership over the facility, returning it to local control. An editorial in the Riverside Press-Enterprise declares, "It's about time," saying that local control of the airport, where passenger numbers have dropped substantially since the mid-2000s, is "just the beginning" in ONT's revitalization. Quixotically, the Sacramento Bee's Dan Walters sees ONT's retrocession as an opportunity to kill the bullet train by instead building a rail link between the airport and San Diego.

The Democrats have their own Donald Trump, and his name is Bernie Sanders. Columnist Jonah Goldberg writes that while the dismay among establishment Republicans over the Trump ascendancy is getting all the attention, the division on the left between Hillary Rodham Clinton's and Sanders' supporters is no less important: "The Clinton team is clearly nervous. Her poll numbers have been plummeting as Sanders' have been surging. The campaign moved up its ad buys from November to this month. She's been tacking ever further left. The trouble for Clinton and the Democrats generally is that while Barack Obama was able to unite the factions of the left to get himself elected, it's not clear anyone else can." L.A. Times

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