The Language of Immigration, Continued

by Shaker KaterTot

Literally the same hour I was drafting this piece for my own purposes, Liss posted the perfect set-up; not only about language, but about the language of immigration. So, though I don't comment often around here (or not near as much as I read), I figured I'd share it with the rest of you.

At Shakesville there is a general understanding that language plays a huge role in the collective reality. I don't think I have to get into the ins-and-outs of why adopting a new term into the lexicon, while a natural and positive part of any dynamic language, is a great opportunity for irresponsible people to marginalize ideas and subcultures. Therefore, we are all charged with the noble task of choosing our words carefully and applying them wisely if we are really interested in being allies in diversity.

I can't think of how many times I've explained this, both to the obvious bigots and to seemingly well-intentioned and even well-informed, progressive individuals: Illegal is an adjective, or at least it always has been.

Like adjectives are wont to do, illegal describes or further qualifies an noun so the reader/listener can better understand the noun. For instance, I could refer to a murder as an illegal murder, therefore describing that not only did a person kill another person, they did so without the grounds to hold up in a court of law.

Illegal immigrant is extrapolated from illegal immigration, thus adapted to fit the colloquialisms of a proudly uneducated nation. In the term illegal immigration, illegal is used to describe the immigration; like the aforementioned murderer, not only did this person immigrate, they did so without lawful grounds.

Take away the illegal and the terms hold distinctive amounts of power: One is murder, the other is immigration.

Put the illegal back into the equation and they suddenly hold the same, or at least comparable, weight.

But then we get into illegal's migration (ha!) into the realm of modifying a proper noun, as dictated by vernacular. Because the immigration is illegal, we the people have begun to describe the immigrant as illegal. Unlike any other crime that I've come up with, immigration, when criminal, does not have its own special name; think here of the difference between murder and manslaughter. To chock it all up to lack of understanding is overly simplistic; this is about marginalization. How do we, a nation of immigrants and descendants of immigrants (many of whom did not come here legally), effectively separate the us from the them? We define them as much by their crime as their condition, or action; therefore, not immigrant, but illegal immigrant. It becomes increasingly common to hear things such as, "She's illegal." I want to ask, "She is? All the time? Just on Tuesdays? When is this person illegal, and how is it that each and every action performed by her is illegal?" Truly, to be as illegal as these immigrants reputably are must take a lot of work.

And then comes the greatest offense of all: the complete dropping of the condition. The reference to a human being as illegal, this time as a noun.

It's not just Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh—the aforementioned "obvious bigots" who I am not linking. It's a common term these days. Illegals. As in, the illegals who want social services; the illegals who need to be deported; the illegal whose kid goes to my kid's school. How, in a world where serial rapists, clandestine child molesters, domestic batterers, abortion clinic bombers, presidential assassins, and yes, even plain-ol' murderers, get the privilege of having their actions, but not their very selves, defined as illegal, is it possible that this group, this group of people, with such a wide variety of motivations and dreams and work ethics and family systems and histories and identities, does not receive the same privilege?

Yes, there are undocumented immigrants who are not Latin@, but generally that is not what people are talking about when they refer to an illegal immigrant. I don't think I'm making too rash of a generalization when I say that, for the most part, the term was invented for people traveling North across the Mexican border, regardless of their country of origin. And if that isn't racism, I don't know what is.

And once it made sense to me in those terms, I realized that I have to speak up every time. Every time. Not only will I not participate, I will not allow others to do so without being acutely aware of the meaning of their words. Is Jeffery Dahmer illegal? Dick Cheney? Osama bin Ladin? If not, then why is anyone else? I want to talk about the root of all of this, and I take those soapbox moments as opportunities to open the conversation about how and why we marginalize individuals with such abandon in this country: It's a convenient way to separate ourselves, to categorize our culture, and to truncate the potential of diversity.

[Language of Immigration, Parts One and Two.]

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