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Right Speech: No Human Being is Illegal

Right Speech: No Human Being is Illegal

The White House has proposed a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants that amounts to a stop-gap measure, offering a way forward for some but stopping short of true reform of the immigration system. It does nothing to outline a process for the future, much like the Clinton-era ‘amnesty bill.’ This is likely a compromise to please some advocates and drum up goodwill, but is sure to frustrate many on all sides.

Despite a concerted Colorlines campaign to get media and politicians to stop using the word ‘illegal’ and replace it with ‘undocumented,’ most still use the ‘i’ word. What’s in a name? Campaigners assert that ‘no human being is illegal.’ Illegal usually refers to an action, as in illegal search and seizure, or an object as in illegal drugs. In legal terms, a human being is neither, with slavery being the obvious case where a person was considered an object. With regard to immigrants, what we’re really talking about is an action (being in the country without certain pieces of paper) that has been outlawed. In some cases, such as the DREAMers, they were brought to the United States as babies or very young children. A person is not illegal, they are simply present without certain documents, a human existence that some believe is criminal.

If you study the history of US immigration law, borders were not as big a deal once. In the southwest, people came and went without dealing with fences, cameras, drones, checkpoints, or even a border patrol. The annexation of Texas was actually a case of relaxed Mexican immigration laws that allowed Europeans and European Americans to flood in and become the civic majority. Now everyone has to have documents, though as Arizona’s SB1070 and aftermath demonstrates, some much more than others. This is how the border is not just a physical barrier, but a mental and emotional barrier that extends into our everyday lives, where the Asian, Latino, Black, or European person sitting beside you on the bus might live in a completely different scope of possibility than yours—what they can or can’t do, places they can go, or what they can even imagine doing. Luckily, some key parts of state anti-immigrant bills now seem to be dying, and activists, most notably the DREAMers, are slowly making gains in making politicians see the inhumanity of our current system.

Every word choice not only relates to our own personal state of mind, but also expresses a world view, a political stance. As a practice of active awareness, we can pay attention to the fact that ‘an illegal’ is a political phrase that objectifies certain human beings, plastering them with often-racialized and gendered ideas about criminality. By instead using ‘undocumented,’ we shift attention to our broken immigration system—in which constitutional rights don’t even apply—which has long chosen to bestow the necessary documents and selectively enforce its own laws in very uneven ways throughout US history.

Can Right Speech help us? Can our language choices help us remember or remind others that undocumented immigrants are people, with feelings, thoughts, hopes, fears, and that the only difference between them and us is the fickle State—who in reality needs cheap, exploitable undocumented labor to keep profits up? What’s in a name?

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Comments (2)

  • Cris Fugate

    Sorry, but from the viewpoint of the law, they are illegal immigrants. If you choose to ignore the law, like many progressives do, you can call them anything you want. But the real problem is not what they are called, but how they are being exploited.

  • Kenji

    Thanks for this comment. You and I are actually on the same page. Intensive capitalist exploitation is a key problem faced by undocumented immigrants due to the lack of formal status the rest of us benefit from. However, let’s look at how language contributes to the problem. The ability to control the mainstream discourse about “illegal immigrants” is directly related to the ability to pass or uphold policies and laws that facilitate their exploitation. Without the dehumanizing discourses of illegality and criminality, it would be less politically palatable. This is why our use of language is important to changing the national discussion about undocumented immigrants. It is nearly impossible to argue for the rights of an “illegal” whereas the rights of an “undocumented” person is tangibly easier since the humanity of the latter is easier to understand. Changes in the effects of laws and policies often rest in seemingly simple linguistic distinctions like this. If we want to fight the exploitation of undocumented immigrants, we need to do so on as many fronts as possible, looking at all the issues involved.

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