Monday, May 29, 2006

Mixed feelings on the term "economic refugee"

George Lakoff's latest bit of "framing" or "spin," depending on one's perspective (CC thinks redefining "spin" into "reframing" is the cleverest thing George Lakoff has done), is that we should term people not in this country legally "economic refugees."

I am torn on this term for a couple of reasons and I'd like to take it apart.

The part of the term I like is: "economic." I do view immigration as fundamentally an issue of economics and it confuses me when other people don't. The "we're turning into a Spanish-speaking country!" people confuse me just as much as the "They're poor! And we're big rich Americans with infinite resources!" people do*. I'm not certain what role arguments that ignore economics should play here.

This is fundamentally an issue of economics. These folks aren't coming here because they want to be Americans. (Indeed, it must really suck for them to leave their families and their culture.) They need money. In large numbers, they send money home. Surely they want to be at home.

This indicates to me that the obvious solution is sustainable development for Mexico and consequences if Mexican leaders do not start taking better care of their people. If immigrants are no longer coming here for purely economic reasons, then the ones that do come really want to be here. Win-win, IMHO.

The part of the phrase I don't like is "refugee."

Being poor sucks. It does. But it is not the same thing as being persecuted by your government for religious or political reasons. If we loosen the term "refugee" so much that it looses meaning, what hope will these people, the ones who need us the most, have? It sucks to have to live in a substandard place, eat non-nutritious starchy food and not have access to adequate medical care. But it is not on the same scale of immediate awfulness as, say, living in a country where everyone with your skin color is being systematically hunted down and killed.

It seems common among YRUUers (and some adults) for "You're oppressing me!" to be code for "You're not letting me do what I feel like doing!" I've noticed just in my years working with youth that the impact the word "oppressed" has on me has begun to wane. Let's not do that to the word "refugee," a word that for most of us still brings to mind people truly in desperate and immediate fear for their lives.


*That said, the people complaining about the influx of poor people at least seem consistent in that they dislike the poor people here, too. That people who spend seemingly all their time complaining about America on every other issue and pointing to the superiority of every other country suddenly see letting poor people into America as the solution for fixing their lives, is indeed mystifying. Nobody is advocating transporting people looking for a better life to Europe, Australia or Canada. We KNOW those countries won't let people in. When we require noblesse oblige from someone, it's always bad old America.


Anonymous said...

That's more or less what we have been saying all along -- if Mexico's economy were improved, there'd be no problem. What can we do to help Mexico's economy? I own two lots in San Felipe, which has 0% unemployment, due to the influx of Americans because of the development of El Dorado Ranch. If we ever get enough money to build a house there, we will further help the Mexican economy. Not much else I can do, since our government no longer listens to citizens.

Anonymous said...

Oh, by the way, do you have a better term to suggest than "economic refugees"?

Chalicechick said...

We could advocate economic sanctions and foreign aid as easily as we advocate various immigration laws, I'm guessing.

Sadly, I think the government IS listening to the citizens here, they just don't agree with you and me.


Who thinks that "undocumented worker" is ok, she guesses.

Anonymous said...

Undocumented worker? Did you read the whole paper about it? Have you read any of Lakoff's books?
"undocumented worker" keeps the problem focused on the workers, but a big part of the problem is the businesses that hire them, and that phrase cuts that part of it out. Another part is our governments policies. Another part is minimum wage. Another part of it is that American companies actually advertise in Mexico encouraging workers to come here illegally -- why shouldn't they be responsible for that? And then there's the issue of what the heck is Mexico doing about all this, if anything? The point of framing is that the words you use shape the answer you come up with. It's more than spin.

Chalicechick said...

I don't see how "refugees" in any way puts the focus on US businesses, either. The whole point of the phrase "economic refugees" is to put a melodramatic spin on the poverty the average non-legal worker faces. I have some sympathy for that, but nothing about the phrase suggests American businesses are doing anything wrong. If anything else, it implies that American businesses are heroically shetering the refugees.

It seems to me that the solution for businesses is to use the laws we have and crack down. I think the advertisements in Mexico are best used as a guide for which companies to scrutinize. There's not much we can do to get them to take them down other than to catch them at it and fine them so heavily that hiring these folks isn't profitable. (That won't do a damn thing for the workers' quality of life, of course, which is why I think just about anything we do in America is a band-aid)

I'm not sure how the minimum wage is the problem. The illegal construction workers here make about $15 per hour, well above the minimum wage in VA. A guy I know wanted some guys to do some landscaping at his house and went to the parking lot where our local bunch of non-legal workers hang out. Nobody would look at him for less than ten bucks an hour.

AS for "The point of framing is that the words you use shape the answer you come up with," all I can say is that the point of spin is exactly the same.

Note how "Youthful indescretion" sounds a lot less threatening than "drunk driving arrest."

WOuld that be spin? Framing?

I'd say both.


Anonymous said...

"economic refugees" doesn't point to businesses that hire them, but it also doesn't cut them out of the equation the way the "immigrant" collection does. If you can improve on "economic refugees", that's fine. The consensus of people who work with the subtle meanings of words for a living is that "undocumented worker" isn't better.
OK, the difference between "spin" and "framing" is that when you call it spin you sound condescending and superior, like you don't approve of it, and you're "above" it. Whereas, when it's called "framing" it has some utility and scientific backing. So, the difference is the "spin" on the words. But, it still means something: it's much like the people who, when you ask how they are, in the common ritualized way of meaning a bit more than hello, but nothing personal, will not answer "fine" because it isn't strictly honest -- i.e. they don't get the meaning of the ritual is indeed the ritual rather than the literal meaning. That position may be factually true but misses the point, and is an immature and naive viewpoint. (I used to have that viewpoint myself, long ago.)