Alien Language: Immigration Metaphors and the Jurisprudence of Otherness

Alien Language: Immigration Metaphors and the Jurisprudence of Otherness

By Keith Cunningham-Parmeter

"An Oriental invasion ... a menace to our civilization ... ."
-Justice Stephen J. Field, 1889

""This silent invasion of illegal aliens from Mexico ... .'"
-Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, 1975

"The northbound tide of illegal entrants ... ."
-Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, 2000

William Rehnquist referred to Mexican children as "wetbacks." No one disputes that the future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court used the ethnic slur in front of his colleagues in 1981. When a shocked Justice Thurgood Marshall objected, Justice Rehnquist defended himself arguing that "wetback" still carried "currency in his part of the country."

Justice Rehnquist would go on to author some of the most important immigration decisions of the late twentieth century. In those opinions, he did not refer to immigrants as "wetbacks." Rather he employed a rich array of metaphors to describe a nation at risk. He wrote of "an avalanche of claims" coming from unauthorized immigrants.  He described the fight against illegal immigration as a form of "national self protection." He argued that federal law must "combat[] the employment of illegal aliens." The larger cognitive frame structuring these statements might be described as immigration is a losing battle. Illegal aliens are entering the country like an avalanche - dangerous, monolithic, overpowering, and unstoppable. Law enforcement officers are engaged in combat for national self-protection. In this metaphoric war, Supreme Court Justices become soldiers who must protect citizens against the impending alien offensive.

 Statue of Liberty

Purchase the article, Alien Language: Immigration Metaphors and the Jurisprudence of Otherness, 79 Fordham L. Rev. 1545 (March, 2011).

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