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Linguistic Power: What the Executive Orders Tell Us about Views of Immigrants

By Lauren Brocious, Linguistics Student, Volunteer Research Assistant with the Center for Research on Migration Refugee Integration


Power. At the core of so much of our human struggling is power, the desire to have it and the ability to wield it over others. Power has as many forms as there are people seeking after it, and one of our greatest (and most powerful) skills as a human race is our ability to control our world through language. No other species on earth can in such precise yet voluminous ways mold sounds into symbols with limitless meaning and nuance. This power is a tool, but it can also be a weapon.

Language is a powerful force in the creation of culture. In many ways, language is shaped by cultural values of a particular group, but there is also a deep relationship between the cultivation of cultural values as a direct result of language. When the language being circulated is violent and hateful, then the culture also becomes a culture of violence and hate. And culture, as the total sum of values and behaviors of a specific group of people, leads directly to actions and reactions which, in many cases, can be explosive. This, I fear, is what we are seeing right now in the United States and all over the world in respect to the “migrant crisis.”

You hear it every day on news outlets, blogs, social media posts in the United States: “illegal immigrants are destroying the American economy,” “immigrants commit murders and rapes and wreak havoc on American communities,” “Muslim jihadists are sneaking in to create terror in the US,” and on and on. This is the language we heard during the campaign, and it seems to be continuing to be used during this administration.

Curious as to how the recent executive orders issued in January and March of this year are playing a role in perpetuating the cycle of hateful language and violent reactions toward immigrants and refugees in the United States, I undertook a linguistic analysis of the orders to assess what kind of language is used to frame these ideas. The orders are, after all, titled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” so my aim was to discover the linguistic patterns employed to talk about people entering the country as immigrants and refugees in relation to the concept of terrorism in the United States. I compared the two orders to see which patterns were consistent and what sort of differences exist in their language and structure, and I also combined them to see what kind of language is most common between them as a whole in this specific context. Most importantly, I wanted to see how the power dynamics of U.S. government versus “criminal migrant” play out in the language of the text.

My analysis has two parts, and as a linguistic analysis, I focus on examining word choice and sentence structure in order to see what underlying assumptions are being made and conveyed by the “speakers” or authors of the orders. Because language is, in a way, a reflection of how the speaker conceptualizes their identity and perception of reality, an analysis of the structure of language output can shed some light on how the speaker is building these concepts through language. For example, someone who is giving a public speech will alter their language to be more formal and structured thereby reflecting their identity as an information-providing-speech-giver in that moment. Conversely, someone who is speaking to a child may select different words or sentence structures in order to reflect their concept of what is proper speech for a child. Along these same lines of reasoning, I looked at word choice and sentence structure of the executive orders in order to see what sorts of identities and assumptions are made by the speakers in this particular context.

Word Choice Analysis

The first element I looked at was the number of occurrences of words such as “terrorist” or “terrorism” in proportion to words such as “refugee” and “immigration” within each order to see how often these words occur in relation to each other and if the two orders are comparable in the number of occurrences of these words. The two word groups (terrorist/terrorism and refugee/immigrant) seem to be more and more synonymous in current dialogue on media outlets and social media, so I wanted to see their relationship in the context of the executive orders. Here is what I found:

EO1 Total word count: 2869 EO2 Total word count: 6161 Word Count % word count Count % word count terrorist 6 — 26 — terrorism 10 — 21 — Total 16 0.558% 47 0.763% refugee 13 — 22 — immigration 7 — 7 — Total 20 0.697% 29 0.471% 

The numbers show that there is a 0.2% increase in the use of the words “terrorist” or “terrorism” between the two orders. There was also a decrease in the number of instances the words “refugee” or “immigration” were used in the second order. Executive Order 13780 puts more emphasis on the idea of “terrorism” in relation to immigration and refugees, suggesting that the type of people coming into the States are first and foremost terrorists before they are anything else. This is an abstraction of an entire group of people, attributing qualities to them that are not generalizable. By suggesting that anyone who attempts to enter the United States is automatically a suspect of terrorism distorts the reality of the situation and enflames antagonistic attitudes towards refugees and immigrants. It is criminalization of the act of crossing the border into the United States and thus anyone who commits this act is placed in the category of criminally dangerous (aka a “terrorist”).

Other common umbrella terms used to refer to people entering the United States in the executive orders include “foreign nationals” (27%), “individuals” (17%), “aliens” (9%) etc. This systematic classification of people into generic categories and groups is problematic. By reducing the group of people entering the U.S. into one conglomerate mass, the need for recognition of diversity and variability is also reduced.

While analysis of word choice can give insight into the categorical attitudes the speaker is creating for people entering the United States, these words do not occur in isolation. They are embedded in clauses and sentences of which the structure gives further clue into the mindset of the speaker.

Sentence Structure Analysis

Sentence structure, or the way in which different elements of a sentence are configured in relation to each other, can provide insight into the roles each player in the sentence is undertaking and receiving. The subject of the sentence or the “doer” of the action versus the object of the verb or the “receiver” of the action and the actual verb or “action” of the sentence itself- all of these structural elements of a sentence are important in conveying the intended meaning by the speaker. In short, who does what to whom can be a window into how the speaker conceptualizes themselves in relation to others and vice versa.

In order to see what sorts of roles and action the speaker of the executive order gives to refugees and immigrants, I analyzed the most common parts of speech for the terms used to refer to people entering the US mentioned above. The results are as follows:

Part of Speech Count: Total (EO1/EO2) Object of a preposition 92 (28/64) 54% Subject- active voice 27.16 (11.5/15.66) 16% Direct Object 17.5 (10.5/7) 10% Subject- passive voice 13 (2/11) 7.7% Subject- copula 10.33 (3/7.33) 6.1% Possessive 5 (3/2) 3% Subject complement nominative 3 (0/3) 1.8% Adjective 1 (1/0) 0.6% Total words: 169 

Over 50% of the references to people entering the U.S. are found in the object of a preposition position in the sentence. (An object of a preposition is a noun that comes after a preposition as in “the entry of foreign nationals” or “enter as refugees”. The words “of” and “as” are both prepositions and the words “foreign nationals” and “refugees” are embedded in the phrases as objects of the prepositions.) In fact, in both of the orders the most common position in the sentence for the term “foreign national” to appear in is “entry of foreign nationals.” The resulting structural position for the term “foreign nationals” (or any other term referring to people entering the country) is deep down in the sentence in phrases that are in turn part of larger clauses that make up whole sentences. They are buried deep within the construction of the sentence and relegated to passive, inactive roles.

When they do appear as subject of an active sentence (that is, they are the doer of an active verb as in “Tom walks to school” where “Tom” is the subject and “walks” is the active verb), the actions attributed to them are overwhelmingly negative: 

Use means to enter….

 Intend to harm…

 Have ties to terrorist groups….

 Bear hostile attitudes…

 Claim to be….


 Seeking to enter the U.S…

 Has the intent….

 Pose a threat…

 Seeks to enter…

 Can document…

 Provided faithful and loyal service to U.S. gov’t…

 Has connections with ISIS…

 Commit, aid or support violent, criminal or terrorist acts

 Present a risk of causing harm….

 Seeking admission….

 Undergo an in-person interview….

 List of active verb phrases attributed to persons entering the United States Sought to infiltrate…. Warrant scrutiny….

 What does this tell us? The majority of the time, terms referring to people entering the U.S. are deep within the sentence structure in passive roles, being acted upon and moved around at will by the speaker. When they do appear in active positions, that is as the subject of an active verb, the action attributed to them is negative, dangerous or violent. They are given no agency other than the intent to do harm. Here again we see the abstraction of a group of people relegated into passivity or criminalized into violence. In the end, it is not the individuals who matter so much as the entry into the United States. The ability of the U.S. government to exercise its power in deciding what and who crosses the border is much more important than the reason that crossing is even being made. It’s a power game that the U.S. is not willing to lose and thus the speaker in these orders asserts its active role over those trying to enter and justifies it by demonizing the group as a whole.

 In Sum

 From these observations, we can see that the language used to talk about people entering the United States makes broad categorizations about who is a “terrorist” and who is a “refugee,” criminalizes the act of entering the United States, and strips the agency (other than intent for harm) from anyone seeking to enter the country. And what IS said is just as important as what is NOT said. It is not mentioned that this big moving mass of dangerous “aliens” knocking down the door of the United States is actually made up of a kaleidoscope of men and women, families, potential community members, contributing individuals of talent and skill. Each person has a unique past they are fleeing, future they are pursing, needs they require and ability they possess. Unfortunately, this reality is ignored and distorted through language that abstracts and objectifies as we have seen in these two executive orders and as we hear daily in other social and media outlets.

Language is a tool or a weapon depending on how we intend to use it. We have the power to change our culture through language just as much as we have the power to create it through the same means. We can take a stand against reactionary language and strive for more inclusive, more empathetic language about refugees, keeping in mind that each individual has a unique set of circumstances and needs. Protecting ourselves and all others from those who do have the intent to do harm is a worthy goal, but grouping everyone into this category is not the way to fight against them. Instead of putting people immediately behind the bars of our language and attitudes, we can be more aware of how we treat refugees in our language and empower them to become our equal partners in building a strong and unified community instead of tearing them down and pushing them out.


The views and opinions expressed on the interACTION blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Utah or the College of Social Work.

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Last Updated: 12/12/23