The terminology used in reference to those affected by immigration and the DREAM Act needs to be revised.
The so-called focus on budget cuts is mysteriously reflecting the current House of Representatives Republican majority’s not-so-subtle social and cultural agendas.
House Republicans’ call for cuts in hundreds of programs, such as the Migration and Refuge Assistance account, in addition to the recent vote on eliminating federal funding to the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, seemingly reflect culture war battles in the United States.
Despite this conservative agenda and presence in Congress, a Feb. 8 New York Times article points out President Barack Obama has been adamant about trying to revive the Development, Relief, and Education of Alien Minors Act – the DREAM Act – this year. The bill, which was shot down in a 55-to-41 Senate vote in December 2010, prior to the new Congress would have given undocumented youth who entered the United States before the age of 16 a path toward citizenship.
While not giving up on this bill and placing it on his agenda is admirable of Obama, he and other DREAM Act proponents need to address the rhetoric used to describe the people affected by this cultural and social debate – rhetoric which distinctly marks them as “other.”
“Illegal immigrant” is the common phrase used to describe the population the DREAM Act would champion.
To give this bill even a fighting chance in this fierce conservative climate, U.S. society must undo the dehumanization process and stop using the word “illegal.”
“The vocabulary of immigration is important,” said Peter Spiro, a political science professor who teaches immigration law. “The use of the term illegal immigrant suddenly shaves the political discourse. The preferred term among immigrant advocates is undocumented aliens or undocumented non-citizens or [the term] ‘out-of-status.’”
The “illegal” modifier hasn’t gone unnoticed – the news website Colorlines.com and racial justice think-tank Applied Research Center created the I-Word Campaign to address the problems associated with this terminology.
The I-Word campaign points out that the term “illegal” allows anti-immigrant proponents to, intentionally or unintentionally, dehumanize immigrants and people of color by “othering” them.
“We are all human beings, but many in government and the media have chosen to continually use the term ‘illegals,’” the campaign’s website reads. “This sends the message that it’s normal to think about immigrants as sub-human and undeserving.”
When FOX News’ Glenn Beck or any other anti-immigrant advocate uses “illegal,” they’re also constructing a national identity that creates fear and anxiety, and knowingly or not, perpetuates justification for hating the people they “other.”
Sociologist Patricia Hill-Collins points out the “paradox of American national identity” in her 2006 book “From Black Power to Hip Hop: Racism, Nationalism and Feminism.”
Hill-Collins stated this identity has a predominantly white association and contains many contradictions, ranging from citizenship rights promised to U.S. citizens compared to “differential group discrimination,” to “external and internal racisms that work with and through one another by excluding and containing selected categories of citizens.”
“Addressing these contradictions requires listening to those with different interpretations of what it means to be treated ‘like’ one of the American national family or to be excluded from the American national family altogether,” Hill-Collins wrote.
For those brought to the U.S. without their discretion, the DREAM Act would have been an avenue to build the kind of life in this country afforded to every born U.S. citizen.
The Times interviewed Maricela Aguilar, a junior at Marquette University. She bravely revealed her undocumented status in public at the federal courthouse in Milwaukee, Wis., this past summer.
“It’s all about losing that shame of who you are,” Aguilar told the Times. “I’d much rather clarify to the public that being undocumented is just a circumstance I find myself in. I’d much rather have that out in the public than just living in fear.”
In this instance, Aguilar and undocumented youth are being excluded from the “American national identity,” and terminology may not be the only reason as to why, but it is certainly an important one.
Josh Fernandez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.