“Illegal Immigrant” – Words That Can Wreck a Messenger

In many ways the Hispanic/Latino community is more supportive of economic liberty than Americans as a whole. Reaching them is essential if the freedom movement is to prosper.

By Ken Braun

Words, intent and tone can make or break a messenger. A poll of 803 registered voters of Hispanic and/or Latino origin conducted by FoxNews Latino last August revealed more than two of every five (41 percent) perceive the term “illegal immigrant” as an offensive reference to “undocumented immigrants living in the United States.”

To be sure, a larger percentage (53 percent) reported not being offended. But for those of us advocating for free markets and limited government, there isn’t much upside in using a phrase that will offend a huge chunk of a very important audience. 

Many people who cross the border illegally do so out of sense of desperation, or a lack of education, resources, and/or understanding about how the system works. It is important for the liberty movement to 1) recognize the importance of legal immigration; and 2) showcase examples of how Latinos/Hispanics, regardless of status, align culturally with the liberty movement and its principles.

Reaching this population is essential if the freedom movement is to prosper.

More than one of every ten American voters (or more than 13 million people) identifies as Hispanic or Latino.

And their overall numbers are growing fast – four times as fast as the white population between 2015 and 2016. They make up almost half the population of New Mexico, 39 percent of Texans, and about three of every ten residents in Arizona and Nevada. There are almost 5 million Hispanics living in Florida, and more than 2 million in Illinois.

In many ways this group is more supportive of economic liberty than Americans as a whole.

For example, the FoxNews Latino poll posed an interesting hypothetical, asking what respondents would do with the extra money if they unexpectedly received $250,000. Thirty percent of Latinos overall, and 43 percent of those born outside the United States replied with “start a business.” Similarly, the 2017 Kauffman Index of Startup Activity reported Latinos as far more likely to start a business than any other major American ethnic group, besting white Americans by 71 percent.

It’s not surprising that a population with an out-sized willingness to become entrepreneurs also harbors a more optimistic outlook about America. A February 2017 poll from the Pew Research Center revealed just 30 percent of Americans overall were “satisfied” with the general direction of the country (about where it has been since 2014.) But the level of satisfaction jumped to 45 percent when only Hispanics were polled, and 55 percent for Hispanic immigrants.

And there would appear to be a healthy skepticism regarding the welfare state. The Public Religion Research Institute’s 2013 Hispanic Values Survey asked respondents to choose whether “most people who receive welfare payments” are either “genuinely in need of help” or “taking advantage of the system.” The general population of Americans was split on the answer, with 46 percent choosing “taking advantage,” versus 44 percent selecting “genuinely in need.”

But among the Hispanic respondents, 56 percent believed most recipients were taking advantage, versus 30 percent selecting “genuinely in need.” And even among Hispanics who self-identified as Democrats, 54 percent opted for “taking advantage.”

Whether or not any specific person from this disproportionately entrepreneurial and optimistic community thinks “illegal immigrant” is an offensive term, there is overwhelming agreement regarding the status of undocumented immigrants and how to treat them. The FoxNews Latino poll – which is of registered voters only and thus Latinos who are American citizens – asked respondents what should be done with the undocumented immigrants already working in the USA. A huge majority (88 percent) answered “set up system to become legal,” rather than “deport as many as possible” (9 percent.)

Advocates for free markets and limited government should steer clear of the term “illegal immigrant,” using it rarely, with extreme caution, or never at all. If it must be used at all, it should be with full sentences, full of context and sympathy.

Example: “It is important to curb illegal immigration and encourage legal immigration. We must start looking into why the most vulnerable, desperate, and poorest feel more trust in “coyotes” that abuse and exploit them than the government in the country where they are seeking refuge and opportunity.”

Remember: Sometimes you really won’t get a second chance to make a good impression.


Ken Braun is the director of policy and communications for Think Freely Media. He has served as a public policy and communications professional for four different free market policy organizations, and as a chief of staff in the Michigan Legislature. He has also been a freelance political columnist for one of Michigan’s largest newspaper chains. Ken can be followed on Facebook, and when he has something really clever to say he will even use Twitter.


What Should Be Said shows effective ways of communicating freedom principles by using a storytelling approach, taking the moral high ground, and staying hopeful and aspirational. Media, politicians and thought leaders often fail to include the freedom perspective at all by omitting critical facts. Alternatively, when they do make a sincere attempt to sell the freedom philosophy, they often do so with a stale and defensive approach that is missing stories that humanize the dry facts and figures. Here we show examples of how storytelling and emotionally compelling changes in message will make all the difference for those trying to advocate for liberty.


Additional information…

FoxNews Latino poll results – August 2016

2013 Hispanic Values Survey

2017 Kauffman Index of Startup Activity

US Census Data on growth of Hispanic population – June 2017


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