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I don't want to pick crab either

A colleague told me that he got a call the other day from a reader complaining about The Sun’s use of the term illegal immigrant, preferring instead undocumented worker, and we went over the discussion of choices once again.

Undocumented worker is objectionable, in part, because not all illegal immigrants are workers. Besides, it’s a euphemism. Illegal alien I think we would want to restrict to beings from Betelgeuse who can’t produce proper papers. Illegal immigrant is as neutral a term as we have available.

I don’t much care for it, because the people who carry on about illegal immigrants seem to be unaware that the illegality is not precisely criminal — people get deported in civil proceedings, not in the criminal courts. The current New Yorker, though, points out that despite the carrying-on about crime by the governor of Arizona and its senior senator and many in the general population, law enforcement statistics show that crime on the border has actually diminished. People who ignore facts are unlikely to heed nuances of meaning.

With the Republic in the midst of one of its recurring bouts of nativist hysteria,* we’re going to have tricky points of usage to negotiate for a while.

So let’s talk about crabmeat instead.

Marylanders love blue crabs. In restaurants and backyard parties they crack the shells with mallets (or beer bottles) and wipe the Old Bay seasoning from their lips. They argue about recipes for crab cakes and their proper preparation. They serve either tomato-based crab soup or the cream version. Except for the squeamish, they eat soft-shell crabs, appendages and all. Visitors to the Free State believe that they are required by statute to consume crab in some form.

The only thing Marylanders are reluctant to do with crab is to prepare it commercially. Every year a federal program permits a group of Mexican women to come, legally and temporarily, to the Eastern Shore to work in the packing houses picking crabmeat. What may be pleasant out in the back yard with friends and family on a summer afternoon is a tedious and unpleasant job that pays low wages, and Marylanders are unwilling to do it. The packing houses plead for renewal of the program because, they say, without the Mexican women coming up to pick crabmeat, they would have to shut down.

There you have an epitome of the larger situation and its issues. There is work that Americans will not do, even in a time of high unemployment, and there are many Mexicans willing to do these jobs for low wages — effectively subsidizing the standard of living that better-off middle-class American citizens enjoy.

It’s not quite clear to me why the proponents of free-market capitalism have not been explaining this patiently to us during the back-and-forth over immigration law and enforcement.

Anyhow, illegal immigrant stands.


*You remember, first we didn’t much like all those Germans, and then all that Irish trash came over the water, and after that the Italians and the Poles and all those Jews, and Chinese on the West Coast, and locking up the Japanese-Americans in camps after Pearl Harbor, and now all those Latinos creeping across the border to pick our fruit and cut our grass and make the beds in our hotel rooms.




Posted by John McIntyre at 10:06 AM | | Comments (10)


I think illegal immigrant is okay, although I wish we had a better term. However, I cringe when people shorten it to illegal.

This NYT op-ed is a great take on the semantic issue.

Well put, Mr. McIntyre.

What about combining the two and saying undocumented immigrants?

The attitude of some proponents of free-market capitalism is summed up by a mayor here in Spain, in the labour-intensive market-garden region of Almería, who is famous / notorious for this gem: "A las ocho de la mañana, todos los inmigrantes son pocos; a las ocho de la tarde, sobran todos (At eight in the morning, you can't have too many immigrants, at eight in the afternoon, even one is too many)."

1. Many Americans have viewed "civil disobedience" as an acceptable means to foment change. (Actually, I hadn't noticed that illegal immigrants were dealt with in civil court. A new thought. Thank you.)
2. In a time of high unemployment even Russian spies can find jobs. What's up with that?

Regardless of what euphemism you use, they have broken at least one law coming here, and many have committed other crimes, including murder, while here.If you want to discuss the glory of Maryland crab, please do so, but don't use the noble blue as a cover for liberal (oh,so sorry, progressive) politics. The crab deserves better.

"It’s not quite clear to me why the proponents of free-market capitalism have not been explaining this patiently to us during the back-and-forth over immigration law and enforcement."

Because Tea Partiers aren't free-market capitalists. They're statists, like liberals, but with different views on how the government should intervene.

It's funny how "Patricia the Terse" was so terse that she didn't actually offer any refutation of what you said. (Did you even advocate anything? As far as I can tell, you were just making an observation about how our economy works.)

Alien had a long history as the opposite of subject or citizen before it was repurposed by science fiction writers. I'll stick with illegal alien.

Anything but deportation is treason.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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