Is the word "illegal" undermining our work for immigrant rights?

by Dennis Chin, guest blogger

Just read this article from Truthout about how we need to dump the term "illegal."  Now for most of us in the immigrant rights movement this is nothing new.  For years now, most of us have been intentional in using the word "undocumented."  Underlying the replacement of the word "illegal" with "undocumented" is the idea that no human being is really "illegal" - that all immigrants are people.  And those of us who use the "undocumented" understand the how words can indeed change the way folks think about issues.  (George Lakoff, author and professor of cognitive linguistics, researches how language influences politics.  Read his stuff!)

Changing a word won't get us reform though.  I mean don't get me wrong, it's critical but it still doesn't address the core issue of illegality that runs deep not only within fervently anti-immigrant circles but the general public as well.

Despite the efforts to place a human face on immigration, the word "illegal" is used time and time again to criminalize, i.e. de-humanize, immigrants.  And it's used constantly as a rationale for enforcement-based solutions.

Take for example, a comment from a post I wrote about a boy talking about his undocumented mother being detained by local police:

"It’s too bad this happened to your family but did your mother think about the situation she was putting her children in when she broke the law to be in the U. S. A.? Put the blame where it is due not on our President. As citizens of the U. S. A. every time someone breaks into our country or overstays their visa our constitutional rights are being violated because we are to be protected from invasion and domestic violence. By you folks breaking our laws because you feel you are entitled to steal from us the moment you step on our soil we are being violated. Think about it. You have made your own bed and you must lie in it because we do have laws against illegal entry and since your mother was detained I guess she must be guilty of being here without being invited. Do the right thing so you don’t have to worry about mom going away again. Try to make your own country a good place to live demand of your government to change so you can have a better life where you belong. I’m sorry your mom chose to break the law. She needs to show you it is not right to break the law to suit her purpose..."

Yah, I know right?  There's a lot to unpack here but I think the most alarming part of this comment is that despite moving testimony and images of this family, the commenter is still willing to overlook the human aspects of this story because someone "broke the law."  If someone is a criminal in our country, that person is less than human.  That person loses context.  That person loses their history.  That person doesn't deserve our consideration because they knowingly committed a crime against us.

This is not a new argument.  We're heard it over and over again.  But with few exceptions, we have avoided this argument for fear of exacerbating the frame of illegality.

But do we really have that much to fear?

There are a few videos circulating that address the root causes of migration and in doing so, muddles our idea of illegality:

If it's legal for U.S. corporations to flood Mexico's markets with cheap imports, how can we, in turn, say it's illegal for impoverished workers to live and work in the U.S.?  (As Rinku Sen from the Applied Research Center states in her book, The Accidental American, a free flow of capital necessitates a free flow of labor.  Read this too!)

I'd like to have this conversation.  And let's not stop there, let's have conversations about transnational capital, international trade, war, and other factors that lay the foundation for forced migration.  Immigration is tied to so many global  issues.  If we are to address immigration in the long-term and if we are to tackle this idea of illegality, we need to start talking about America's role on the global stage.  And we need to do it in an accessible way that complements the organizing/campaigning/humanizing work we do already.

Hard task I know.  (I even wrote "transnational capital" in the same paragraph.  Shows how accessible I can be sometimes...)  But imagine the possibilities...

Photo:  Wikimedia