Nowhere is the reality of the power of words more evident than in the US immigration debate, which is actually largely a war of words. This is not a matter of semantics—not some trivial playground squabble. The immigration debate is largely about how we define people and, in too many cases, whether we define undocumented immigrants as people at all.
It is a debate that will decide the fate of millions of people, including some of our most vulnerable members of society—that is, the children of undocumented immigrants. That we appear to be losing this war of words then, is cause for alarm and action. The progressive movement has ceded ground to the extreme right on immigration mostly, as Eric Ward, lead organizer for Which Way Forward: African Americans, Immigration and Race, argues, because of our unwillingness to name racism as the primary stumbling block to comprehensive immigration reform.
Polls show that most US Americans actually support Arizona’s SB1070, an anti-immigrant state law that not only enables, but encourages racial profiling by police. When I asked author and nationally syndicated radio talk host Bill Press about the strong anti-immigrant bias these polls show, he noted that much of this could be due to the way in which the questions were worded. He believes that the US is actually pretty evenly split across political lines. And, in fact, there is some research to support this optimism.
Unfortunately, I’ve personally had conversations with progressive people, albeit mostly white men, who support SB1070. In my social network, I’ve spoken with others who’ve had similar experiences conversing with white liberals, usually male but also female, who are either riding or on the other side of the immigration debate fence. In short, the progressive movement is troublingly divided when it comes to immigration. This is not so surprising when we remember again that the immigration debate is largely about race. And this blogger, for one, is never surprised by the duplicity of too many self-proclaimed liberal white Americans on issues of race.
The US government supports and encourages anti-immigrant sentiment by employing hate speech, including using terms like “criminal alien” in legislation. The Glenn Becks and Rush Limbaughs of our country also contribute to further othering “the other” not only through using terms like “illegal alien,” but, as Press noted, through more blatant hate speech and outright lies about immigrants and people of color.
And, really, what else but hate speech are terms like “illegal alien,” when they are used to refer to people who are our neighbors, friends and relatives? Or “criminal alien” when, as in the Secure Communities program, it is predominantly applied to those who have committed no crime, but may have been stopped for a traffic violation or, under SB1070, by government-sanctioned and legislated racial profiling?
At a recent hearing of the Portland Human Rights Commission on the so-called “Secure Communities” program, new Police Chief Mike Reese attempted to frame the conversation by reassuring the immigrant and refugee community that racial profiling and deportations of people who have committed minor infractions—that is, who have not committed any actual crime—are “unintended consequences” of the program. Never mind that most of those who have been deported through “Secure Communities” programs in other states have been precisely those who committed no crimes. Or that the “unintended (yet predictable and preventable) consequences” of programs like “Secure Communities” include the separation of parents from their children; increased fear of police in immigrant and refugee communities; a subsequent increase in the number of crimes that are not reported as a result of that fear; the violation of human and constitutional rights such as due process; and the specter of state-sanctioned racial profiling.
Reese assured us that the Portland Police will work to mitigate these “unintended consequences” as they begin to collect data on the Secure Communities program. I was reminded of the language of warfare in which people—that is, civilians—who are killed during fighting between armed groups are called “casualties” or, slightly better, “civilian casualties.” Yet there is nothing casual about death. One wonders whether a more insulting term exists to describe the loss, especially under violent circumstances, of human beings, of someone’s loved ones. Similarly, one wonders whether there could possibly be a less accurate name than “Secure Communities” for a program that actually decreases rather than increases security in our communities. Or, when we know that ICE is working hard to meet a quota of 400,000 deportations per year, a more flimsy and deceptive catch-all phrase—“unintended consequences”—for the results of that program.
I’ve heard it said that if you repeat something often enough, people will start to believe it. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Nor, as I recently learned, is repetition. We are the words and ideas that we consume. And the words and ideas that we impart. So if we are going to put out words and ideas, they must come from a place of love, justice and power. Our “change movement” rallying cry—three words that will forever evoke the memory of Barack Obama’s successful campaign to become the first black President of the United States—were, ironically, borrowed directly from the immigrant rights movement: Si, se puede! Si, se puede! Yes, we can! Yes, we can! We said it enough times that we believed it.
This is the power of words. And we can choose words that will win the immigration debate. Words like “undocumented” that actually reflect the reality of the situation in which so many find themselves. Or like “economic refugee” or “environmental refugee”—terms that are sadly becoming increasingly applicable to many in the developing world who come here to seek a better life for their families.
We need more Eric Wards who are not afraid to name race and racism in the immigration debate. And we need allies like Bill Press, who will call out measures like Arizona’s SB1070 for what they are—that is, “racial profiling,” which is again a term that accurately describes the central strategy of most anti-immigrant programs.
And we must all call out the xenophobic right’s dehumanizing jargon of “illegal” and “alien” and “criminal,” which is being used to promote discrimination against our friends and families, for what it is—that is, “hate speech.” Let us say “no” with a unified voice and as often as it must be said to the myths and outright lies about immigrants perpetuated by xenophobic right wingers as we say “yes,” without faltering and in a unified and resounding voice, to an honest national dialogue about comprehensive immigration reform.
Global groups working on immigrant rights:
Sadly, I couldn’t find a group really working on building a global immigrant rights movement. The closest I could find were mostly groups focusing on globalization, but not from an immigrant rights framework, per se. These groups include:
Please send me any globally-focused immigrant rights groups that you find!
National groups working on immigrant rights:
- Which Way Forward: African Americans, Immigration and Race
- American Civil Liberties Union
- Highlander Research and Education Center (also has a list of more national resources)
- Opportunity Agenda
Oregon groups working on immigrant rights:
- Thinking the Unthinkable: The Immigration Myth Exposed by Nigel Harris
- New Study: Immigration Lowers Crime Social Science Quarterly via RaceWire
- Top 10 Reasons to Support Immigrant Rights by Global Exchange