Thursday, March 19, 2009

Illegal People

I have been stewing about this for weeks. Its more conceptual than specific event-based, so its harder to articulate.

Have you ever thought about how we talk about people?

There are a lot of discussions in various social settings where certain words and phrases are dismissed as being "just a word" or "meaningless" when their problematic nature is discussed. This is a fight that I have had with even the most progressive of folk, many of whom will not acknowledge that words have power. Words define the world around us. What words we use, and what they mean to different people is vitally important, because even if a word means nothing to you, this doesn't mean it has no meaning ever. How we talk about people and things shapes our conceptions of those people and things. How we talk about them also shapes our discourse in regards to these things, and allows us to define people, often without their input.

Which brings me to what I want to talk about here: immigration, immigrants, the words we use when we discuss them and how that perpetuates racist stereotypes and myths about immigrants, and specifically immigrants who are also POC. As Liss pointed out the immigration dialog in this country is usually based in racism and she quotes Professor Ojito of Columbia University:
"The debate, as it is framed now, has become a strictly anti-Hispanic immigration battle cry. And nothing rallies this nation quicker and more efficiently than the presence of an alien. Particularly one who is also considered ``illegal.''"

First, there is the list of assumptions that come with the word "immigrant." For the most part, in a societal context and in political discourse, when the word "immigrant" is used, it indicates "those" people. You know what I'm talking about, the brown people who just need to "learn English 'cause this is America, dammit!" and are "taking our jobs away and draining our health care system and contributing to rising crime, and...and DESTROYING OUR PERFECTLY WHITE WAY OF LIFE GODDAMMIT!" Nevermind that pretty much all of this vitriol is a mythical brown boogieman cooked up in the fevered imaginations of paranoid white people.

The thing that gets me the most, is the term "illegal immigrant." Its a term that can be heard all over US conservative talk radio, and it seems to have joined the popular lexicon here. This creates a serious problem, by describing people as illegal instead of describing their actions which were illegal. People can't be illegal, and to position them as such is dehumanizing and leads to easy justification for violence and other atrocities.

And make no mistake, a good deal of this discourse in the US can be traced directly to white supremacist groups. (Seriously, if you click no other link in this entire post, click this one!)As much as there seems to be a habit of dismissing words as "just words" in conjunction with an apathetic handwave, words mean things, and rhetoric can have deadly consequences. I have linked to only one recent instance, but there are many more every day, encompassing crimes against humanity including rape, torture and gruesome death.


So, for discussion sake, how do you see racist rhetoric in discussions about immigration in your country? What are some of the myths surrounding immigrants?

1 comment:

  1. My least favorite term is "illegals". Reducing a certain set of people to a single civil offense that occurred in the past is extremely dehumanizing. We don't call someone who shoplifted a candy-bar once an "illegal". No, we only use it for immigrants of color who may or may not be undocumented. A person's body, the fact a person exists, is NOT illegal.

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