This was supposed to be a historic week for immigration reform in the United States. Instead, the tragic events that unfolded in Boston are now being used to curtail our first bipartisan bill since ... forever? [I know it's not but it certainly feels like it]. This xenophobic attitude brings me back to the heated debate around the word "illegal immigrant."
The debate is centered on whether or not the term "illegal immigrant" accurately explains a migrant in this country without legal documentation. It's been estimated there are around 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country. That's a lot of people. Since when has it been wise to categorize and generalize a whole group of people? This term "illegal immigrant" is supposed to encompass undocumented migrants in the country looking for work or a better education, immigrants that came here on a work or travel visa and stayed beyond their allotted time frame, immigrants trafficked for labor or sexual exploitation, people seeking political asylum, children brought by their parents, just to name a few. Does it make sense to lump all these people under "illegal"? Is that fair?
So what do people who use the term say are reasons we should call a human being illegal?
1. It's the legally accurate term:
The United States Immigration and Nationality Act does not use the term "illegal immigrant." If you want to get technical, the actual legal terms used are alien, unauthorized or non-citizens. So where did illegal immigrant come from? Why are we pretending this is legal terminology? More importantly, why are we leaning on the law to classify a group of people? Let's flashback and remember the long history of the same system responsible for enforcing slavery, Jim Crow Laws, the Three-Fifths Compromise, The Anti-Coolie Act, Operation Wetback, interracial marriage laws and other fun, xenophobic, racist, sexist and classist laws.
Let's stop using the law as an excuse. Though if you desperately want to call someone a criminal, let's start with the employers that hire and exploit undocumented workers.
2. I/my parents/my grandparents/my loved ones/waited until we had proper documentation to enter the country. If they can do it, so can everyone else:
So because you, your family, your friends or someone you met migrated to this country during a time when there were no draconian immigration laws, were not part of the current migrants being discriminated against or had some sort of privileged socioeconomic/gender/racial status then yes, everyone else should be able to overcome these impossible barriers and be a "legal" too. Let's go tell them!
3. They committed a crime, therefore they are illegal immigrants:
Being in this country without documentation is a civil offense, not a criminal one. Even so, is every person who commits a crime called illegal? Do we say illegal embezzlers, illegal drunk drivers, and illegal jaywalkers? What are the racial and socioeconomic implications for using the term illegal to describe an entire population of migrants? Don't fool yourself. It's a racially and politically charged term.
Why is this important? Aside from the fact that the term "illegal immigrant" is not legally accurate, it completely dehumanizes and wrongfully criminalizes millions of people instead of their actions. There's a deeper issue here that we are conveniently dismissing. Why are people migrating despite the risks involved? Let's stop wasting time and money on xenophobic rhetoric and laws. Instead, let's use it to address the economic, political and social roots of immigration and encourage a solution that offers dignified opportunities to millions who contribute to our economy.
Crudely put, undocumented immigrants have already received the "short end of the stick" and have to think of ways to navigate a system stacked against them. And how do we help them? We add insult to injury by calling them illegal.