Alien Language: Immigration Metaphors and the Jurisprudence of Otherness

54 Pages Posted: 7 Apr 2011 Last revised: 13 Dec 2016

See all articles by Keith Cunningham-Parmeter

Keith Cunningham-Parmeter

Lewis & Clark College - Lewis & Clark Law School

Date Written: 2011


Metaphors tell the story of immigration law. Throughout its immigration jurisprudence, the U.S. Supreme Court has employed rich metaphoric language to describe immigrants attacking nations and aliens flooding communities. This Article applies research in cognitive linguistics to critically evaluate the metaphoric construction of immigrants in the law.

Three conceptual metaphors dominate legal texts: IMMIGRANTS ARE ALIENS, IMMIGRATION IS A FLOOD, and IMMIGRATION IS AN INVASION. In order to gauge the prevalence of these metaphors, the Article engages in a textual analysis of modern Supreme Court opinions and presents original empirical data on the incidence of alienage terminology in federal court decisions. The Article explains how immigration metaphors influence not only judicial outcomes, but also social discourse and the broader debate over immigration reform. As such, the theoretical study of language has very practical consequences for the people defined by immigration metaphors.

The Article concludes by proposing an oppositional metaphoric framework based on the concepts of migration and economic sanctuary. These metaphors describe immigration in terms of movement, work, and community, in contrast to existing legal metaphors that describe immigration in terms of danger, attack, and criminality. Thus, while today’s immigration metaphors signify a loss of economic security and cultural hegemony, the proposed terms emphasize immigrants’ economic contributions and potential for social belonging. This process of evaluation and substitution diminishes the power of existing metaphors to conflate and essentialize, while creating space in the legal imagination for new frames to emerge.

Keywords: immigration, alien, citizen, worker, illegal, race, discrimination, Hoffman, Lopez-Mendoza, Plyler, O’Connor, Rehnquist, Brennan, policy, deportation, courts, alien, citizen, worker

JEL Classification: J21, J23, J38, J50, J58, J61, J70, J71, J78, K31, K39, K42, K49

Suggested Citation

Cunningham-Parmeter, Keith, Alien Language: Immigration Metaphors and the Jurisprudence of Otherness (2011). Fordham Law Review, Vol. 79, p. 1545, 2011, Available at SSRN:

Keith Cunningham-Parmeter (Contact Author)

Lewis & Clark College - Lewis & Clark Law School ( email )

10101 S. Terwilliger Boulevard
Portland, OR 97219-7762
503-768-6640 (Phone)

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