Involuntary immigrants

« previous post | next post »

Below is a guest post by Larry Horn, based on a note submitted to the American Dialect Society's mailing list. The topic is the the slaves-as-immigrants flap occasioned by Ben Carson’s reference in his recent remarks characterizing slaves as immigrants who worked particularly hard for particularly low wages.

Given the opportunity to “walk back” his remarks a day or two later, he supported his reference with lexicographic evidence, noting that ( "An immigrant is: 'a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country’”. Sure enough, Carson’s definition (apparently from Oxford Dictionaries) is echoed by the AHD’s entry: "A person who leaves one country to settle permanently in another.”

Does this extend to enslaved persons and others forced to live or “settle” in another country? Were Jews and gypsies loaded into cattle cars in the 1930s and ‘40s and transported to death camps in Germany immigrants too?  Technically, they did leave France or Holland or wherever and “settled" permanently—if you can excuse the adverb—in another country, but did they leave one country to settle in another? Whether that includes slaves or deportees may depends on what we take the meaning of “to” to be in “to settle…" (purposive/intentional?  resultative?).

The OED passes the buck to the verb (‘one who or that immigrates’), which in turn is defined as 'To come to settle in a country (which is not one's own); to pass into a new habitat or place of residence (lit. and fig.)’, with the sense of “to” again being crucial.  It’s not clear to me whether any or all of these definitions would at least by implication rule out Secretary Carson’s expansive reading that extends to what he calls “involuntary immigrants” (see e.g.

Any thoughts?  (Steve Kleinedler at the AHD suggests the possibility of an added Usage Note in subsequent editions, if it’s determined that such a note is necessary.)

At the very least, in “involuntary immigrant” we have an early candidate for euphemism of the year.

P.S. The news shows and online commentaries have juxtaposed Carson’s statement and non-walk-back with a 2015 event in which Obama read (somewhat uncomfortably, as Trevor Noah pointed out on “The Daily Show") these remarks:

"So life in America was not always easy. It wasn't always easy for new immigrants. Certainly, it wasn't easy for those of African heritage who had not come here voluntarily and yet in their own way were immigrants themselves. There was discrimination and hardship and poverty. But, like you, they no doubt found inspiration in all those who had come before them. And they were able to muster faith that, here in America, they might build a better life and give their children something more.”

For me, Obama's “in their own way” makes this a very different statement from Carson's, but others may disagree.

Above is a guest post by Larry Horn.


  1. Mattew T. Bradley said,

    March 8, 2017 @ 4:55 pm

    Displaced persons and, more specifically and pointedly, trafficked persons ring more honest to my ear. Anachronisms always sound a bit off to me, however.

  2. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 8, 2017 @ 5:31 pm

    There's also an earlier statement by Pres. Obama from 2012 which has a somewhat differently-phrased passage without an explicit "in their own way" hedge: "Our American journey, our success, would simply not be possible without the generations of immigrants who have come to our shores from every corner of the globe. We say it so often, we sometimes forget what it means — we are a nation of immigrants. Unless you are one of the first Americans, a Native American, we are all descended from folks who came from someplace else — whether they arrived on the Mayflower or on a slave ship, whether they came through Ellis Island or crossed the Rio Grande."

    Obviously you can finesse that one with by parsing it such that "folks who came from someplace else" is a broader category than "immigrants," so then not all of the four examples given need to fall into the narrower "immigrants" category, but it seems more plausible to me to read it as treating "folks who came from someplace else" as synonymous with the "immigrants" (at least some permissible broad-scope sense of "immigrants") mentioned in the earlier sentences. The distance in the discourse between "immigrants" and "slave ship" combined with the switch to a paraphrase/synonym probably does make it less jarring, though.

    Separate from the "on a slave ship" group, it seems that at least some people might want to quibble as to whether the "on the Mayflower" group fairly falls into the ordinary sense of the broader group "immigrants," since that might be thought a rather euphemistic way of avoiding categorizing them as "invaders" or "conquerors," or even the perhaps less pejorative "settlers."

  3. Alana said,

    March 8, 2017 @ 5:45 pm

    Well I think "to leave" implies that it was intentional. If you kidnapped my friend and took them to a different country, I don't know that "your friend left" would be an accurate characterization of the event.

  4. Mark Mandel said,

    March 8, 2017 @ 6:32 pm

    Much what I have been thinking, Alana. I fantasized about kidnapping Carson, locking him in a cellar, and assuring him that he's not a kidnap victim, he's my guest.

  5. RP said,

    March 8, 2017 @ 6:33 pm

    Some other dictionaries have definitions which are harder to square with Carson's interpretation:

    Chambers: "to come to a foreign country with the intention of settling in it." ( )

    Cambridge: "a person who has come to a different country in order to live there permanently" ( )

  6. Rubrick said,

    March 8, 2017 @ 7:16 pm

    Not directly relevent and perhaps less interesting, but in Hamilton!, Lin-Manuel Miranda somewhat stretches the definition of "immigrant", or at least that given above, by applying it to the Marquis de Lafayette, who was in the colonies specifically to participate in the revolution and AFAIK never had any intention of settling here permanently.

  7. Rebecca Root said,

    March 8, 2017 @ 7:17 pm

    And then, there are young children who are brought by parents, not necessarily against their will, but perhaps without their will figuring into it in any way. I don't think it's correct to say that they have come to a foreign country with an intention to settle there or live there permanently or any particular intention at all. And yet, I'd call them immigrants.

  8. David L said,

    March 8, 2017 @ 7:24 pm

    I'm an immigrant but when I first came to the US it wasn't with any intention of staying here. Just thought it would be an interesting place to spend a couple of years. But then stuff happened and here I still am — and happy to be here. So I'm not sure that intention is necessarily part of being an immigrant. Unless you make the case that initially I was a visitor but only became an immigrant when I decided to stay.

  9. DaveK said,

    March 8, 2017 @ 7:40 pm

    Obama's "in their own way" just means that Obama knows how to convey his meaning better than Carson.
    I think the key issue is: is immigrant a useful way of describing the people they both are referring to? We have a lot of words for someone who winds up in a place other than their birthplace: immigrant, traveler, sojourner, settler, captive, exile etc. Calling captives brought here as slaves "immigrants" deliberately compares them to people who arrived voluntarily. Depending on the point you're trying to make, this can be a legimate comparison or not.

  10. Jon W said,

    March 8, 2017 @ 8:12 pm

    It seemed to me when I first read Carson's statement that the problematic part wasn't his characterization of slaves as immigrants. It was his further statement that "they too [like Ellis Island immigrants] had a dream that one day their sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters, great-grandsons, great-granddaughters, might pursue prosperity and happiness in this land." That's just plain weird, since the slaves' movement certainly wasn't motivated by such a dream, and for some of them their dearest hope may have been not being forced to bear children who would have to suffer from being alive in this land at all.

  11. Levantine said,

    March 8, 2017 @ 8:46 pm

    I think Jon W has hit it the nail on the head. When Obama and others mention slaves in the same breath as immigrants, they do so in order to reinscribe African Americans into the national narrative ("We are a nation of immigrants" otherwise leaves little space for them). Whatever objections can be made to this rhetorical move, I think it's very different from Carson's much more fleshed out analogy, which made it sound as if the experience of slaves was somehow commensurate with that of people who crossed the Atlantic under very different circumstances.

  12. Y said,

    March 8, 2017 @ 8:54 pm

    It's not being discussed much at present, but certain factions in Israel used to speak of "voluntary transfer" of Palestinians to other countries, "transfer" itself being an earlier, more disagreeable euphemism for "expulsion".

  13. Reinhold {Rey} Aman said,

    March 8, 2017 @ 9:01 pm

    @ Larry Horn

    Were Jews and gypsies loaded into cattle cars in the 1930s and '40s and transported to death camps in Germany immigrants too?

    Most "death camps" (German: Todeslager), also called "extermination camps" (Vernichtungslager) were not located in Germany but in occupied Poland. "Concentration camps" (Konzentrationslager or, short, KZ) were located in Germany and elsewhere, but they were not "death camps."

  14. D.O. said,

    March 9, 2017 @ 12:19 am

    Leaving historical slaves aside, how about modern slaves, brought to US (or wherever) either by force or deceit and kept in captivity by various means? I would personally extend to them the definition of immigrant.

  15. RachelP said,

    March 9, 2017 @ 12:24 am

    Isn't it always the case that things tend to get a bit slippery when dealing with human intentions? It doesn't seem right to say you have to intend to immigrate because (and I was the same case) you might well just move temporarily and then find yourself years later, being an immigrant without ever intending it at anytime. Except you must kind of intend to stay put, if you stretch the point.

  16. Levantine said,

    March 9, 2017 @ 12:45 am

    D.O., unlike the victims of the transatlantic slave trade, modern slaves usually begin their journeys of their own volition, even if driven by desperate circumstances (and one could argue that most migrants leave their homelands because they feel they have no other choice).

    To my mind, migration is an active rather than a passive activity. Yes, I know that children are made to migrate by their parents, but they are also made to go to bed, go to school, etc. It's sophistic to imply (as another commenter did) that the existence of child immigrants leaves open the question of whether one can speak of slave immigrants.

  17. JPL said,

    March 9, 2017 @ 2:19 am

    The OED Online has, "… one who migrates into another country as a settler." Under this definition the person who migrates has "agency", i.e., is intentionally determining their own actions, which would not allow application of the word to cases of slavery and forced movement. The Oxford definition in the post seems to have a problem with point of view: "a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country", with "comes" and "foreign". "A person who moves to a country in which they are non-native and permanently settles there" would perhaps solve that problem and the part-circularity of using 'migrate' in the definiens. 'move', however is less strongly agentive than 'migrate', but agentivity is, I would say, a necessary feature of 'immigrate'. In any case, the brutal fact of movement by bodily force should, at the very least on Gricean principles, override the possibility of using the word 'immigrate' to describe it. In the Obama quote, I would not have used the word 'immigrant', but would perhaps have tried a different expression. Maybe something like, "… found themselves in a foreign land, faced with the need to somehow make a permanent life for themselves". I know that the semantic feature of "intention(al)" (or "purposive") is usually regarded as belonging to the 'to' complementizer, but I think it's important here to distinguish between events that are self-directed purposeful, adaptive actions (what I've called "agentive" above) and those that involve movement of an object (in this case a person) by an agent not identical with that object. The key point is free choice to do the act or not do the act.

  18. Daniel Sterman said,

    March 9, 2017 @ 5:18 am


    Generally, advocates of "voluntary transfer" in Israel were referring to offering financial or other incentives to willingly leave the West Bank/Gaza. It's not referring to the implied (and more sinister) "he was very attached to his arm so he decided he'd better go with it", to paraphrase Terry Pratchett.

    I am given to understand that even "voluntary transfer" of this sort is against international law, but for some reason cannot find a source for it. (I keep finding sources talking about "indirect transfer", which is when you just make people's lives suck until they decide to leave on their own, but that's not the same thing.)

  19. richardelguru said,

    March 9, 2017 @ 7:03 am

    J. W. Brewer
    "Unless you are one of the first Americans, a Native American, we are all descended from folks who came from someplace else"

    Even they are, and I guess everyone is 'descended from folks who came from someplace else' unless there are any folks all of whose ancestors lived in Olduvai Gorge (or wherever we speciated).

    And actually I am a good candidate for the title 'involuntary immigrant', since I came to America on business, met someone, married her and have been here ever since….though I admit I did become a citizen voluntarily.

  20. Nick Barnes said,

    March 9, 2017 @ 7:45 am

    What Jon W said. All Carson's remarks were ill-judged, but the image of hundreds of slaves, as they lay suffering and dying, crammed into the dark holds of a slave ship, passing the time in dreams about their descendants living free in their glorious destination: that image will stick in my mind a long time.

  21. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 9, 2017 @ 8:06 am

    I suspect that this is one facet of a broader and recurring lexico-semantic issue: any time you have a noun that basically means "someone who has done X," there may be weirdness or uncertainty as to whether it encompasses people who have done X accidentally, involuntarily, or under duress. To generalize from some of the comments above, whether such people do or don't fit into the semantic scope of the noun may depend on the context of the discourse, and whether the focus is more on responsibility/accountability for the instance of X-ing or more on the practical real-world consequences of X having, for whatever reasons, actually happened. Ideally if someone else's usage strikes you as odd you ought to search for a charitable construction, which might well turn out to be that they are focused on a different aspect of the situation than you had expected, such that that different focus makes their usage more cromulent. In a political controversy like the present one, I expect part of what is driving the objection is the notion that choosing to focus on a different aspect of the situation than the one that the critic thinks is the most salient one is itself objectionable-to-outrageous. Of course, when the speaker is someone you generally like rather than someone you generally dislike, you may cut him more slack when it comes to what focus is or isn't appropriate.

  22. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 9, 2017 @ 8:25 am

    Sorry, should have included this example in the prior comment – I think on further reflection that my discussion upthread of whether Pres. Obama's "folks who came from someplace else" was or was not perfectly synonymous in context with "immigrants" was unnecessary, because including slaves in the broader category FWCFSE could be subject to more or less the same form of objection, which would run: What do you mean, the enslaved Africans "came" to America? They didn't _come_ here; they were _brought_ here against their will. Whether that is a fair objection or an obtuse missing of the speaker's point is left as an exercise for the reader.

  23. KeithB said,

    March 9, 2017 @ 10:44 am

    I think we are focusing on the wrong thing, the bad part is the rest of it: "Sure I am being forced to go to a strange place and facing an horrible life of slavery and I miss my loved ones terribly, but at least my great-great-grandchildren will have opportunities!"

  24. John Burke said,

    March 9, 2017 @ 10:45 am

    I think Dr. Carson may have been channeling Randy Newman:

  25. John Burke said,

    March 9, 2017 @ 10:46 am

    Sorry, left out the URL:

  26. Milan said,

    March 9, 2017 @ 11:10 am

    Interestingly, to this non-native speaker, it is much less disagreeable to describe the movement of slaves over the Atlantic as "migration" than to call the slaves themselves "immigrants." This is despite the fact that the dictionary definitions are largely parallel, the OED defines migration in the relevant sense as "Movement of people to a new area or country in order to find work or better living conditions." No matter how you read "in order to", the definition doesn't fit. The slaves neither intended to find better living conditions, nor did they do so.

  27. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 9, 2017 @ 11:34 am

    To Milan's point, a major US university offers an interdisciplinary major called its "Ethnicity, Race and Migration Program," with one of the major "migrations" relevant to the field of study being the Atlantic slave trade, semi-euphemistically covered in the phrasing "other inter­continental migrations, including those from Africa and Europe to the Americas." AFAIK there have been no widespread objections that the name is inappropriate or insensitive, so I think Milan's non-native-speaker intuition is broadly in accord with native-speaker intuitions here.

  28. Paul Topping said,

    March 9, 2017 @ 11:41 am

    IMHO, the problem with Ben Carson's statement is not his use of "immigrant" but his characterization of slaves as immigrants that worked particularly hard for particularly low wages, which sounds like the punch line of a joke he's gotten wrong.

    The Obama quote points out that the slaves were involuntary immigrants, whereas Carson does not.

  29. Rob Chametzky said,

    March 9, 2017 @ 5:57 pm

    Aviva Chomsky (yes, Noam Chomsky's daughter and a professor at Salem State University) in this clip discusses that "immigrant" in US history could only be applied to those who could become citizens, and citizenship was limited to whites until after the Civil War and then the Naturalization Act of 1870 that allowed naturalization of "aliens of African nativity and to persons of African descent."

    –Rob Chametzky

  30. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 9, 2017 @ 6:17 pm

    So presumably the younger Prof. Chomsky should think sentences like "Early Japanese immigrants were not allowed to become U.S. citizens or to own land" are incoherent because the Japanese who came to the U.S. during the lengthy period when they were ineligible for naturalization (although their U.S.-born children would be citizens as of right) were not "immigrants"? But sentences like that are common in current books about the period and indeed the bi-gram "Japanese immigrants" appears with some frequency in long-ago books like e.g. one from 1917 titled "The Japanese Invasion: A Study in the Psychology of Interracial Contacts," which seems to be (spoiler alert) not entirely positive about the phenomenon it addressed.

  31. Dougal Stanton said,

    March 10, 2017 @ 8:24 am

    I wonder if individuals "transported" to Australia or other colonies are/were considered to be immigrants, involuntary though they may be.

  32. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 10, 2017 @ 9:24 am

    Dougal Stanton's question is another one where searchable corpora may help provide significant insight. A quick dip into the 19th century subset of the google books corpus reveals multiple instances of the NP's "free immigrants" and "voluntary immigrants" used in an Australian context to describe the group of arrivals that contrasts with those who were sent to Australia as convicts. That's evidence that at a minimum the notion of "free/voluntary" was, for at least some writers, not so strongly embedded in the semantics of "immigrant" as not to need to be made explicit when one wanted to make clear that one was *not* talking about involuntary immigrants. Someone with more time than I do this morning could do some further searching to see if there are other usages of "immigrant" in the Australian context that expressly include those who were involuntarily transported there. And of course 19th century usage and 21st century usage might not be the same.

  33. Rodger C said,

    March 10, 2017 @ 12:15 pm

    And let's not forger that transportation to America was also a thing pre-1776.

  34. Rodger C said,

    March 10, 2017 @ 12:21 pm

    *forget. In fact, IIRC, transportation to Australia began only after transportation to America became impossible.

  35. JPL said,

    March 11, 2017 @ 4:29 am

    J.W. Brewer @ 10 Mar 9:24 am:

    "… involuntary immigrants."

    The possible contradiction may be obscured in the nominal form, but in a sentence such as, "In the 18th century West Africans involuntarily immigrated to America" the dissonance seems evident. It is also possible that expressions such as "voluntary immigrants" indicate not a contrast or distinction (with "involuntary"), but an additive relation, or emphasis of the relevant feature of "immigrant", and those who came not of their own volition (no contradiction) would not have been described as "immigrants" ("He freely chose his destination."). I guess we need an example from the corpus.

RSS feed for comments on this post