On Tuesday, my fellow columnist Tyanna Slobe wrote a piece on the dehumanization of “undocumented immigrants” and how referring to such a demographic using the term “illegals” is contributing to that dehumanization. I would argue, however, that perceived dehumanization is not the worst thing that can happen.
Illegal, as an adjective, means “contrary to or forbidden by law.” So, when an immigrant decides to gain access to the United States of America in a way that does not align with the laws set in place, they are committing an illegal act. I agree that people need to be treated as people regardless of their legal status, but there is no outcry over the terms “criminal” or “felon,” both of which apply to illegal immigrants (it being a felony to reenter the U.S. after deportation). In fact, undocumented immigrants are viewed by our government as “aliens,” which has more dehumanizing connotations than does the word “illegal.”
In all of this talk of dehumanization, people seem to be skirting around the actual problem at hand. When we get down to it, immigration is the source of debate, not a disagreement about vernacular.
We don’t call someone a “criminal” or “felon” because we want them to feel any less human, but because we don’t particularly care how human law-breakers feel when they’re breaking the law.
Let’s say, hypothetically, that I wanted to move to the beautiful country of Chile. When starting the moving process, I would make sure that when I set up residence, I was doing so legally. If it turned out that I did not have proper documentation because I got impatient with the citizenship process, my moving plans would be put on hold. And, if I did make the decision to move to Chile regardless of my legal status, I would not expect fellow Chileans to care how I felt about being referred to as an illegal. If I move to a different country illegally, they can call me whatever they’d like, because I would be committing a crime. And I understand that criminals aren’t looked upon very highly.
When I use the term “illegal” I am not, in any way, referring to Latinos as a whole, as Ms. Slobe seemed to be implying. Remarking that someone is an illegal does not make me racist or stereotypical if that person is indeed here without the correct documentation. I am fully aware that there are many members of the Latino race that are here legally, and I do not generalize illegals to mean anyone with skin darker than mine. However, if we’re going to be up in arms about “illegal,” why no public outrage over “criminal” and “felon” and “alien?”
And why is it that we’re suddenly concerned about the dehumanization of illegal immigrants and not the fact that they’re here illegally in the first place? When I use the term “illegal” in reference to a person, I am using a noun that happens to apply to that particular person. I would do the same when referring to someone that committed a felony as a “felon,” and I’m not deemed a racist or stereotypical bigot for using that terminology.
If we put half as much energy into reforming the citizenship process as we did worrying about equality and feelings, the problem would probably be solved by now. I agree that changes need to be made to the methodology that one has to take to become an American citizen, and that should take precedence over petitions to drop words in colloquial language.
I understand that illegal immigrants are being treated brutally in places all over the country. I am in no way condoning that behavior. But referring to them as an illegal is not treating them brutally — that is a statement of fact. I would expect the same kind of language to be used toward myself if I decided to pick up and move to Chile tomorrow.
People are people, and they deserve to be treated as such. But referring to a person in this country through illegal means as an “illegal” is not treating them as less of a person. I am using an accurate noun that pertains to their illegal activity, which wouldn’t be an issue if there was no illegal activity in the first place.
Brittany Jordan is a junior psychology major. He column appears every Thursday in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.