…or is it? It was the question that many Latinos were wondering as they caught word of the offensive “illegal alien” Halloween costume that was being sold by many retailers across the U.S. A successful campaign by immigrant rights activists was waged to sound the alarm on this, which led to national media coverage. Subsequently, retailers like Target, Walgreens, eBay, and Amazon.com removed the costume from their inventories. It was another example of the growing political clout that Latinos are beginning to exercise on a variety of issues, as I have previously argued here. I woud like to echo the sentiments that were expressed so well by César J. Baldelomar over at the Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform blog: the language that we use can define our social realities in deeper ways that we might at first realize.
On second thought, I would actually like to take it a step farther and call on something that I see being ignored by the corporate media and (sadly) by even many immigrant rights activists: that the ONLY permanent solution to our ’illegal immigration’ woes is to combat the oppressing poverty that creates ‘illegal immigrants.’ No amount of border walls, deportations, or discrimination will ever stop ‘illegal’ immigration because those things never address the true source of the problem: the poverty that forces many to flee their homelands. Professor of Linguistics George Lakoff said it best on The Framing of Immigration piece when he bascially analyzed how we do not have an ‘illegal immigration problem’ or an ‘illegal employer problem’ (to lable it as such would undermine the scope of what we’re actually dealing with here), but rather a full-blown HUMANITARIAN crisis:
Perhaps the problem might be better understood as a humanitarian crisis. Can the mass migration and displacement of people from their homelands at a rate of 800,000 people a year be understood as anything else? Unknown numbers of people have died trekking through the extreme conditions of the Arizona and New Mexico desert. Towns are being depopulated and ways of life lost in rural Mexico. Fathers feel forced to leave their families in their best attempt to provide for their kids. Everyday, boatloads of people arrive on our shores after miserable journeys at sea in deplorable conditions.
As a humanitarian crisis, the solution could involve The UN or the Organization of American States. But these bodies do not have roles in the immigration frame, so they have no place in an “immigration debate.” Framing this as just an “immigration problem” prevents us from penetrating deeper into the issue.
Language is a powerful thing because we shape our language based on our reality and our reality is shaped by language. It’s a circular thing and we can break the cycle of ignorance by introducing new powerful terminology that can shape our realities in a positive way. As I used to say it before on my old Myspace page:
…people talk about “illegal aliens,” which dehumanizes the issue and implies that immigrants that enter the country with no documents are criminal, other-worldly beings. Yet no one talks about the fact that they are simply Economic Refugees (refugiados por causa de la economia); human beings that have ventured to seek out a better life for themselves…
…To reduce the discussion to a soundbite of “those that break our immigration laws must be punished and must not be rewarded for the criminal behavior” frankly leads to nothing productive. If you want to talk about doing illegal and/or wrong things then maybe you should talk about how the United States has oftentimes contributed to the economic woes of many countries. If you want to talk about taking responsibility for your own actions, then maybe the United States should take responsibility for what it has done with the International Monetary Fund’s INTERVENTIONS(click here for details) in third world countries. If you want to talk about wrong doing maybe you ought to be talking about American maquiladora factories and their low wages/cheap labor practices. Maybe you ought to look into how some American business interests have gone into many countries, sucked them up dry, and bailed out; adding to their economic woes.
Sadly, I’m afraid that we’re missing the boat on this one. Immigration reform would be a good first step towards improving our current social situation. However, if the quest for immigration reform does not at the very least contain a serious conversation regarding the role that oppressing poverty has in all of this, then I am afraid that it will just be another band-aid ’fix’. Maybe it’s time now (as a first step) to call on our government to ditch the ‘illegal alien’ term and instead adopt ‘economic refugee.’ You can start by contacting the Deparment of Homeland Security at:
Secretary Janet Napolitano
Department of Homeland Security
U.S. Department of Homeland Security
Washington, DC 20528
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