The following post is provided by Jean Marie Place. Place is a third-year PhD student at the University of South Carolina in the department of Health Promotion, Education, and Behavior.
Recently I was asked by a friend through email, “How are the little Latinos doing?” referring to my friends and my life in Mexico. I am currently a doctoral student from the United States and I have lived in Mexico for the past six months. I cringed when I read these words in the email. I thought of how some of my Latino friends would react to such a classification! At the epicenter of their culture are ancient, powerful civilizations like the Aztecs, Mayans, and Incans. Globally, there is little comparison in the richness of their cultural heritage. Yet, implicit in the words “little Latinos” is a blanket commentary on their status as second and third world countries and the belief that they are something “other than” and “less than” what my friend is; a North American. Labeling “the other” as different and inferior has been used time and time again as a tool to oppress and dehumanize. There is the case of women as “witches,” Jews as “unclean” and Blacks as “separate but equal.” I cringed when I read my friend’s email because the labels we use matter. They are indicative of how we view, and likely treat, those around us.
The term “illegal immigrant” is no exception. A few weeks ago I was involved in a lively discussion about the use of the term “illegal” to describe those who enter our country without papers. I stood by the use of “undocumented or unauthorized worker” to describe the situation. People questioned why I wanted to water down the issue with foggy language. “Call it what it is – something that is illegal,” they said. My response is that using the word “illegal” does not water down the debate, it stops it dead in its tracks. Though we can almost all agree that the immigration system needs restructuring, those who actively advocate for it are seen as defending that which is “illegal” and thus unjustifiable. Using such terminology, those who work for reform will always be at a disadvantage.
Avoiding the word “illegal” would advance the agenda of immigration reform in a more productive way, but I actually think the issue has more far-reaching implications. As I have reflected on the two CNN opinion pieces that addressed the “i word” issue, I thought back to the email my friend wrote when he used the term “little Latinos.” The term “illegal immigrant” is a similar form of ‘othering’ and its consequences ring a familiar bell in history. I worry the term “illegal” has such a repugnant smell to most North Americans that, when using the label “illegal,” it is easier to dismiss, ignore, or even remove rights these people have as individuals, and not just immigrants. It is my argument that we need to be wary of words used to oppress and dehumanize – a pattern played out across history and around the world.