“Stop calling them undocumented immigrants. They are ILLEGALLY in our country and they are not citizens. They are aliens … Putting lipstick on a pig doesn’t change the fact that it’s a pig.”
This is a Facebook comment from one of my most recent articles that I wrote about allowing undocumented people in South Texas to travel in order to have access to health care and precious family moments. Over the past two years, I have written about 20 immigration-related articles, and I receive many comments like the one above almost every single time I publish something.
These comments are often followed by the direct or implied message that because they are “illegals” or “illegal aliens,” they have no rights and whatever punishment or horrible condition follows after them entering this country is justified. Obviously, that logic is incorrect because anyone in the United States has some amount of rights.
For example, undocumented immigrants have constitutional protections like the right to due process and protection from unreasonable search and seizure, the right to a court hearing on immigration status, and they are protected by federal wage laws. Undocumented immigrants have the right to attend public primary and secondary schools and a number of states, including Washington, allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses to drive legally and purchase insurance. Outside of being legally misleading, the term “illegal” has become incredibly dangerous because of how dehumanizing it is.
My grandparents, my mother and I grew up in the Rio Grande Valley, a border area in South Texas that has effectively been a binational community for generations. The Rio Grande Valley was literally built on the backs of hardworking undocumented immigrants. As a result of the Rio Grande Valley’s binational nature, I grew up and went to school with people who were undocumented. I have seen that they are good people. I have seen that they are honest people. But most importantly, I have seen that they are people.
So much of that crucial sense of humanity is lost when people refer to them as “illegals.” When people refer to undocumented immigrants as “illegals,” they stop seeing them as humans and start seeing them as criminals that have inherently harmed society. People start to believe that an undocumented immigrant’s very existence is illegal. As families were separated, as a father and his daughter washed up dead on the banks of the Rio Grande and as we continue to hold families in horrid detention conditions, there is a significant portion of the voting populace that believes that is all OK because those people are “illegal.”
That is exactly why Americans must retire the use of “illegal” in reference to undocumented immigrants. The term is not just offensive, in just the past year it has been used to rationalize injustice, inhumane treatment, and, at times, death. As a result, it is a term that should be viewed as a slur.
Unfortunately, the word “illegal” is powerful and resonates with a base of people that is looking for an explanation for America’s shortcomings, so news organizations and politicians use it with almost no ensuing outrage.
We seem to have just accepted that a huge group of people can use the term with absolutely no recourse. If we are ever going to systematically treat immigrants humanely or make coherent immigration policy, we need to get everyone to acknowledge that no one’s existence is illegal, and that will take true character.
It will take politicians explaining to their constituents that undocumented immigrants who are in this country actually do have rights, and we must guarantee those rights are respected even when they know that message may not be received well. It will take news organizations refusing to use the power of the word “illegal” to drive views and instead focusing on reporting the objective truth regarding undocumented immigrants. Finally, it will take all of us making sure that politicians, news organizations and members of our community are held to these standards. The U.S. has shown this character before as we addressed racial, gender and LGBT discrimination head on, and we can do it again.
The first step in getting to sensible immigration reform is eliminating our use of the word “illegal” so we can all see immigrants as the people they are, and while the president may be unwilling and unable to fix our broken immigration system, it is a challenge that our next president will surely have to face.