The owner of Mulligans, a watering hole popular with middle-aged white men in Cobb County, Georgia, regularly updates his marquee to comment on current events. Here is what’s up today:
HELL YEH, ARIZONA. SEND THEM WETBACKS HOME! ANCHOR BABIES & ALL! IF U CAN’T FEED UM DON’T BREED UM!
The local news station reporting on the sign bleeped out the offensive term. As they should have, wetback being an ugly racial slur.
But there is a word more commonly used and much more damaging to immigrants and Latinos: illegal. We need to stop using it ourselves, and demand that media outlets retire the word as well.
Every few months, another listserv circulates What Part of ‘Illegal’ Don’t You Understand?, the excellent 2008 New York Times piece by Lawrence Downs, to remind us that until we get rid of the phrase illegal immigrant, we have little hope of opening up pathways for the people thus maligned to come into legal status.
We know this phrase is crushing us, yet we have done nothing to deliberately and conscientiously fight this battle.
Gays and lesbians have long understood that language is a weapon, and so have actively defended against it. It is not the harshest words – fag, homo, dyke – that have done the most damage. The most damaging term was the word homosexual, which managed to be both sensational and clinical. With most gay people still hidden in the shadows in the 1980’s, Average Straight Jane’s reading about a homosexual could not see past the sex at the heart of the word. The alpha and omega of a homosexual was sex; he or she was not anyone’s son or daughter, a teacher or a mail carrier, a friend or a neighbor. At the same time, the clinical ring of the term made the person sound psychologically deviant in some fundamental way. Until the late 1980’s, it was the term unthinkingly used by every mainstream news outlet.
In 1987, the New York Times changed its editorial policy to using “gay and lesbian” rather than “homosexual” in writing about, well, gays and lesbians. Once the venerable Times changed its policy, most other news outlets followed suit.
The change did not materialize out of thin air. The switch from homosexual to gay and lesbian came after a yearlong campaign by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), formed in the mid-1980’s to counter the mainstream media’s viscous – and dangerous – coverage of the AIDS crisis. After this huge win, GLAAD stuck around and bird-dogged other damaging terminology: sexual preference got the boot, replaced by sexual orientation; admitted homosexual became openly gay; and the right wing extremists’ favorite term, special rights, never made the leap from right wing propaganda to mainstream reporting.
GLAAD can be irritating, tipping over to whining at times. But goodness, are they effective. Gays and lesbians may not be loved by all, but we would certainly not be the face of CoverGirl if we were still homosexuals.
So what’s the lesson for immigration? It’s time to stop kidding ourselves. As long as illegal immigrant remains an acceptable term, we lose. We certainly lose so long as our side continues to use the term. The Center for American Progress uses illegal immigrant interchangeably with undocumented immigrant. Contributors to the Huffington Post have no problems with the term. Even the t-shirts and signs protesting Arizona’s SB1070 by asking “Do I look illegal?” are acquiescing to a right-wing semantic ploy. It’s time we stopped.
But even if we get disciplined and stop using the term ourselves, we will still need a deliberate campaign to retire the phrase. A decision by progressive and liberals to stick with out of status or unauthorized is fine, but without more, an overly passive strategy.
Last year, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists asked media outlets to stop using the term illegals as a noun. Even that somewhat meek request was generally ignored, and the NAHJ has not followed up.
What does a media campaign to have mainstream media talk right look like? It starts with a history lesson, to remind media outlets that illegals and illegal immigrant are terms that were created and deliberately propagated by right wing hacks. And it explains that, whether as a noun or as an adjective modifying a person, the terms are inaccurate and un-American: one of the fundamental principles of American jurisprudence is that it is the act that is illegal, not the person.
A campaign to rid us of this flawed term would also point out that the range of terms used to demean and dehumanize people – illegal alien, illegals, aliens – are simply defamatory. They are intended to not only insult, but to vilify. Which is, of course, why it is so brutally effective for the right wing’s purposes. By implying criminality where there is none, no further argument is needed by those who wish to maintain the status quo, and no further argument is possible for those who see the need for immigration reform.
There is an opening right now to dramatically change the conversation. Earlier this month, 21-year old student Jessica Colotl caught people’s attention after she was shot into deportation proceedings after being stopped for driving without a license. Pleas from her sorority sisters prompted ICE to give Jessica a one-year deferment and release her from detention, which in turn produced howls of protest from anti-immigrant extremists. The Sheriff of Cobb County responded to his constituents – including the owner and patrons of Mulligan’s bar – and issued an arrest warrant and sent out a posse of deputies to haul her in. She has become, in the words of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a new face on an old debate.
Jessica and other young people brought here as children, who have no pathway to legalization and are now facing deportation, have disrupted people’s cozy, simplistic ideas of what it means to be out of status in this country. That opens the way for new thinking.
The majority of people in Cobb County reject the sentiments on the Mulligans marquee, but support the Cobb County Sheriff’s decision to issue an arrest warrant for Jessica. We will not win meaningful immigration reform until ordinary Cobb residents see the Sheriff’s actions for what they were: an overly aggressive act by a bully against Jessica, a young woman we very much want to remain in the United States. That shift will not come until Jessica stops being an illegal immigrant and becomes a college student, her mother’s daughter, and our friend and neighbor. Adelante!