Alien Language: Immigration Metaphors and the Jurisprudence of Otherness

Keith Cunningham-Parmeter

Willamette University - College of Law


Fordham Law Review, Vol. 79, p. 1545, 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.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 54

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

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Date posted: April 7, 2011 ; Last revised: December 13, 2016

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: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1803473

Contact Information

Keith Cunningham-Parmeter (Contact Author)
Willamette University - College of Law ( email )
245 Winter St. SE
Salem, OR 97301
United States
(503) 370-6609 (Phone)
HOME PAGE: http://www.willamette.edu/wucl/faculty/profiles/cunningham/index.php
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