September 30, 2009

I support calling people and things by their right names

Posted in Current events, Human rights, Language at 3:43 pm by The Lizard Queen

A pet peeve of mine is people calling undocumented immigrants “illegals.”  It’s dehumanizing.  Naturally, then, I appreciated this passage from a recent Crooks and Liars post, which goes into more detail on that point, and makes enough really good points that I wanted to reproduce it here in hopes of contributing just a little bit toward making the discussion a bit more… dare I say civil?… and grounded in reality.  The excerpt is fairly long, so I’m putting it below the fold.

There’s a reason the National Association of Hispanic Journalists urges their colleagues to avoid dehumanizing terms like “illegals”:

The term criminalizes the person rather than the actual act of illegally entering or residing in the United States without federal documents. Terms such as illegal alien or illegal immigrant can often be used pejoratively in common parlance and can pack a powerful emotional wallop for those on the receiving end.

Moreover, as Eric Haas at the Rockridge Institute points out, it’s a grossly misleading phrase — and one that reveals a powerful xenophobia:

But the phrase “illegal immigrant” is misleading. There’s a grain of truth, but the emphasis is only selectively applied — it’s misapplied — we don’t call speeders “illegal drivers” or people who jaywalk “illegals.” And that selective application to immigrants is harmful.

Most people don’t understand that “illegal immigration” is in fact only a civil misdemeanor — which, as legal infractions go, places it on the same scale as speeding or illegal parking. Instead, we’ve managed to work it up in our minds that being undocumented in the United States is a big-time crime, and thus the undocumented are criminals.

Thus we get Rep. Steve King saying this in response to the Democrats’ common-sense efforts:

“If anybody can, with a straight face, advocate that we should provide health insurance for people who broke into our country, broke our law and for the most part are criminals, I don’t know where they ever would draw the line,” he said.

I wonder if Steve King has ever exceeded the speed limit while driving on the freeway. Because, applying his own logic, he would himself also be “a criminal.”

Moreover, nearly half of the undocumented workers in this country didn’t “break into” the country — they came here on legal visas that then expired, and they simply didn’t leave.

Calling them “illegals” and “illegal immigrants” is a noxiously dehumanizing habit — one that only encourages hatefulness and violence against Latinos. It would always help, as Marisa Trevino at Latina Lista points out, if President Obama himself would stop using it.

Because the logic of “illegals” eventually leads to a mindset like that noted by Albor Ruiz at the New York Daily News, describing the kind of commentary that usually accompanies discussions of immigration:

“Save the taxpayers of this country a great deal of money and kill them [the undocumented immigrants] on the spot, along with those who think [they] deserve anything better,” he said as a reaction to “Immigration’s self-deportation program is a real government gem,” a column that ran in this space on Aug. 6.

Ironically, the writer used the case of an illegal immigrant who committed murder in Texas to justify calling – patriotically, I guess – for a much more horrible crime, an “ethnic cleansing” of sorts against all immigrants and – why stop there? – thousands of people “who think these pieces of (I’ll spare the reader the disgusting epithet) deserve anything better.” If this guy and others like him had their choice, I and others like me would be well advised to “go back to where we came from.” Or else.

That, of course, is classic eliminationism. It underlies the use of “illegals.” And that alone is reason for major-network TV anchors to stop using it.


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