FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

From the I-Word to the I-Deed

by JOSEPH NEVINS

On April 2, the Associated Press announced that it would no longer sanction the term “illegal immigrant” or use “illegal” to describe persons living in a country without authorization. Eight days later USA Today, the largest circulation newspaper in the United States, announced a similar policy.

These changes are the result of a three-year, national campaign spearheaded by the Applied Research Center and its online news site, Colorlines.com, as part of a collection of organizations and activists that includes the National Hispanic Media Coalition and Jose Antonio Vargas, journalist and founder of Define American. The effort, called “Drop the I-Word,” is now seeking to build on its victories by pressuring The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times to follow suit.

Less directly—but still significantly—the changes are also the outgrowth of the inspiring efforts of immigrant activists and organizers, many of them undocumented, to challenge their “illegal” status. From DREAMers conducting civil disobedience and daring the federal government to arrest and deport them, to the passengers on the UndocuBus riding this past summer across the country, “undocumented and unafraid” immigrants have opened up invaluable space for policy debate and new initiatives.

Drop the I-Word is predicated on the assumption that words matter, that the terms we employ are more than mere words, that the language we use can harm individuals. To this extent, the campaign’s recent victories are important and the ongoing efforts necessary.

Yet, given that language is situated in a material reality, what these victories and efforts mean in terms of a highly repressive apparatus of immigration control and exclusion that systematically criminalizes migrants is less clear. It is an apparatus that has seen massive growth of late—the number of Border Patrol agents, for example, has increased from about 4,000 to 22,000 over the last two decades. It is one that will likely become more formidable and draconian via the “comprehensive immigration reform” now on the table.

As the name of the campaign suggests, critics of the use of the “i-word” perceive it as racist. “’Illegals’ is a racially charged slur used to dehumanize and discriminate against immigrants and people of color regardless of migratory status,” explains the ColorLines website.

A study published in 2006 by the psychologists Tiane Lee and Susan Fiske shows that the generic image of immigrants in the contemporary United States is one of untrustworthiness and incompetence. But it is unauthorized immigrants as a whole, they find, who are the most despised, occupying a position, contends the sociologist Douglas Massey in discussing their article, “usually reserved only for the most detested and socially stigmatized groups.” No doubt, the labeling of such individuals as “illegal”—given the power of the law and the state to shape worldviews—has strengthened their stigmatization.

Still, the question is, what impact will greater linguistic sensitivity have on the rapidly growing apparatus of immigration control and boundary policing—one that cost almost $18 billion and exiled via deportation a record-breaking 410,000 people last fiscal year? The seemingly constant drumbeat against “illegals” over the last few decades has certainly provided potent ideological fuel for this apparatus. Yet, what has played a huge role in giving the term its ideological traction is the growing public acceptance over the last several decades of a system for policing the country’s boundaries and immigrants—and public demand for such (a demand that state has played a huge role in helping to manufacture). At the same time, it is the material and ideological weight of that system that has given life to the “i-word.”

For these reasons and more, the links between changes in language and actual practice are complicated, and often messy. Indeed, if the past is any indication, shifts in the language related to immigration can sometimes unfold in a policy context that seem antithetical to those shifts.

In the late 1970s, for example, the Carter administration forbade the official use of the term “illegal alien.” Instead, it employed terms such as “undocumented worker” or “undocumented alien” to characterize unauthorized migrants. Yet, it was also during the Carter administration that a significant increase in federal resources dedicated to boundary and immigration control commenced, helping to lay the basis for a larger build-up that would accelerate significantly in the succeeding administrations.

The Reagan administration quickly reversed the Carter policy and reverted to the language of “illegal alien” upon coming to power, while also markedly increasing the size and growth rate of the policing components of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). At the same time, it was Reagan who championed and signed into law the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) in 1986, making some three million unauthorized migrants eligible for IRCA for permanent residence and eventual citizenship.

Such outcomes raise the issue of how we ensure that words matter in transformative and systematic ways. So, if “no human being is illegal”—as the “Drop the I-Word” campaign asserts—does this mean simply that we shouldn’t call people “illegal”? Or does it mean, or should it mean, that we shouldn’t treat people as such, that we should not see the act of migrating, or residing or working in a country in which one was not born as wrong, illegal, or even criminal—and work to change the country’s political-economic institutions to reflect this? In other words, does the change in language reflect or seek to bring about a corresponding shift in material reality?

In terms of the Associated Press and the USA Today, the answer is clearly no. As the AP’s executive editor explained in announcing the policy shift, “’illegal’ should describe only an action, such as living in or immigrating to a country illegally.”

So, for the likes of the Associated Press, the problem is merely one of language inappropriately applied to particular individuals or groups of people. What is not up for consideration is the system that effectively makes them illegal and treats them accordingly—for example, by imprisoning and deporting them, dividing and harming countless families in the process, and contributing each year to the untimely deaths of hundreds of migrants who perish while trying to circumvent the ever-thickening regime of boundary policing.

Where Drop the I-Word stands on this issue—notwithstanding its invoking of humane treatment of migrants, an end to racial profiling, human rights protections, and a “need to look at how to fix our laws so that they also match our values”—needs to be clearer. The victories thus far in the corporate media are significant, but the challenge for the campaign—and for all of us who support it—is to realize far greater promise by ensuring that it be strongly linked to efforts to achieve systemic change.

Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once observed that “words are deeds,” thus highlighting how words embody our ways of life. To the extent that words are meaningful, they flow from, and help produce our worldviews and everyday practices, and the social structures in which we are embedded.  At the same time, to the extent that one wants to challenge language that contributes to a devaluing and marginalization of human beings simply on account of their ancestry, geographic origin, or on what side of an international divide they were born, the effort to identify appropriate terms is part of a larger struggle. It is necessarily a struggle to create a very different, more just world.

In this regard, the fight against the “i-word” must be tightly tied to one to eliminate the “i-deed”—in the form of the walls and fences that litter the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, the pervasive immigration policing in the country’s interior, and the growing body of laws that criminalize migrants and make their lives increasingly untenable, for instance. Otherwise, the word, albeit a highly undesirable one, will be largely that—a word. Meanwhile, the repressive system of regulation and exclusion will be sure to stay in place, effectively producing “illegals” and other forms of disposable people, with all the attendant forms of violence, regardless of what we decide the call them.

Joseph Nevins teaches geography at Vassar College. His latest book is Operation Gatekeeper and Beyond: The War on “Illegals” and the Remaking of the U.S.-Mexico Boundary.

This essay also appeared on NACLA.

 

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

August 25, 2016
Mike Whitney
The Broken Chessboard: Brzezinski Gives Up on Empire
Paul Cox – Stan Cox
The Louisiana Catastrophe Proves the Need for Universal, Single-Payer Disaster Insurance
John W. Whitehead
Another Brick in the Wall: Children of the American Police State
Lewis Evans
Genocide in Plain Sight: Shooting Bushmen From Helicopters in Botswana
Daniel Kovalik
Colombia: Peace in the Shadow of the Death Squads
Sam Husseini
How the Washington Post Sells the Politics of Fear
Ramzy Baroud
Punishing the Messenger: Israel’s War on NGOs Takes a Worrying Turn
Norman Pollack
Troglodyte Vs. Goebbelean Fascism: The 2016 Presidential Race
Simon Wood
Where are the Child Victims of the West?
Roseangela Hartford
The Hidden Homeless Population
Mark Weisbrot
Obama’s Campaign for TPP Could Drag Down the Democrats
Rick Sterling
Clintonites Prepare for War on Syria
Yves Engler
The Anti-Semitism Smear Against Canadian Greens
August 24, 2016
John Pilger
Provoking Nuclear War by Media
Jonathan Cook
The Birth of Agro-Resistance in Palestine
Eric Draitser
Ajamu Baraka, “Uncle Tom,” and the Pathology of White Liberal Racism
Jack Rasmus
Greek Debt and the New Financial Imperialism
Robert Fisk
The Sultan’s Hit List Grows, as Turkey Prepares to Enter Syria
Abubakar N. Kasim
What Did the Olympics Really Do for Humanity?
Renee Parsons
Obamacare Supporters Oppose ColoradoCare
Alycee Lane
The Trump Campaign: a White Revolt Against ‘Neoliberal Multiculturalism’
Edward Hunt
Maintaining U.S. Dominance in the Pacific
George Wuerthner
The Big Fish Kill on the Yellowstone
Jesse Jackson
Democrats Shouldn’t Get a Blank Check From Black Voters
Kent Paterson
Saving Southern New Mexico from the Next Big Flood
Arnold August
RIP Jean-Guy Allard: A Model for Progressive Journalists Working in the Capitalist System
August 23, 2016
Diana Johnstone
Hillary and the Glass Ceilings Illusion
Bill Quigley
Race and Class Gap Widening: Katrina Pain Index 2016 by the Numbers
Ted Rall
Trump vs. Clinton: It’s All About the Debates
Eoin Higgins
Will Progressive Democrats Ever Support a Third Party Candidate?
Kenneth J. Saltman
Wall Street’s Latest Public Sector Rip-Off: Five Myths About Pay for Success
Binoy Kampmark
Labouring Hours: Sweden’s Six-Hour Working Day
John Feffer
The Globalization of Trump
Gwendolyn Mink – Felicia Kornbluh
Time to End “Welfare as We Know It”
Medea Benjamin
Congress Must Take Action to Block Weapon Sales to Saudi Arabia
Halyna Mokrushyna
Political Writer, Daughter of Ukrainian Dissident, Detained and Charged in Ukraine
Manuel E. Yepe
Tourism and Religion Go Hand-in-Hand in the Caribbean
ED ADELMAN
Belted by Trump
Thomas Knapp
War: The Islamic State and Western Politicians Against the Rest of Us
Nauman Sadiq
Shifting Alliances: Turkey, Russia and the Kurds
Rivera Sun
Active Peace: Restoring Relationships While Making Change
August 22, 2016
Eric Draitser
Hillary Clinton: The Anti-Woman ‘Feminist’
Robert Hunziker
Arctic Death Rattle
Norman Solomon
Clinton’s Transition Team: a Corporate Presidency Foretold
Ralph Nader
Hillary’s Hubris: Only Tell the Rich for $5000 a Minute!
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail