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Words Matter: A conversation with the community about words that dehumanize people

Posted at 7:26 PM, Mar 25, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-25 22:26:21-04

“Illegal alien” and undocumented immigrant are descriptions muttered by politicians in the news and maybe sometimes even among our family and friends.

The Biden administration as part of its proposed overhaul of the immigration system is pushing for dropping the term “illegal alien” for language that is more inclusive.

“We have only been in office for 50 days, but again we’re building a government that’s inclusive, we’re building a government that truly reflects America and a big part of that is ensuring that we’re using the correct terminology and words,” stated White House Senior Director of Coalition Media, Jennifer Molina.

Hearing the words “inclusion” and “immigration reform” may conjure up many feelings in many people. It puts people in camps about issues. You may see these words as necessary, you may see them as “buzzwords.”

So, do words really matter?

“Words matter because words have power, they reflect what’s happening and help construct what’s happening. They shape our thinking, and they shape our reality,” said ASU professor Eileen Diaz-McConnell.

How we talk about immigration impacts how we think about immigrants.

The battle to stop using words such as “illegal alien” began in 2010 with the “Drop the I-word" campaign which was led by the organization Race Forward.

Many news outlets stopped using it in 2013, but the term is still used today to describe undocumented immigrants whether it is in some news outlets or in social media by federal agencies such as U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

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Professor Diaz-McConnel says the term criminalizes people. She says it’s been racialized since it’s not used to describe all undocumented immigrants.

“It’s associated to particular groups such as Mexican migrants and potentially all Mexican migrants, but it’s not to other people such as Irish migrants who overstayed their visas to a variety of other people.”

Being called the “I-word” damages people of color regardless of their immigration status.

“It upsets me, it burns right in my chest because we’re not aliens,” said Lucinda Hinojos.

Hinojos was raised and born in Arizona, she identifies herself as Chicana and Native American. She recently painted a mural of an indigenous and Chicana woman on 14th Street and McDowell Road to bring awareness about the dehumanization of people of color.

She says an indigenous and Chicana woman on a mural is the reflection of why representation and dropping words like “illegal alien” matter.

“We need to throw that out of the vocabulary because we’re all human beings. We’re all different, but we’re one spirit being and so these words carry power.”

So, if words carry power, what happens when we use hateful words?

“If you do a quick Google or YouTube search and use search words “street vending” you will see a lot of examples where ordinary citizens are harassing, violently attacking our street vendors,” said Emir Estrada, Assistant professor at ASU.

Estrada says there’s been a spike in violent attacks against communities of color such as street vendors. She says the attacker usually believes street vending is illegal because they associate the individual with illegality and as an “illegal immigrant.”

“They're told wetbacks, go back to your country,” says Estrada.

Professor Diaz-McConnell says there’s a long history of xenophobic language about immigrants.

“This exclusion of immigrants has been reflected in U.S. immigration policy since the very beginning. For example, in 1790, one of the requirements to become naturalized was “being a free white person” and it wasn’t removed until many decades later.”

But history can be wrong sometimes, in this case, the act of being in the U.S. without documents is in fact illegal, but the person is not.

Estrada says being undocumented is usually a civil offense rather than a criminal.

“Many of them had visas, came with a visa to visit a family member and for various circumstances overstayed their visas so again these labels are not being properly attached to these communities that we’re talking about."

Just like undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children.

“It’s not like I'm asking you to call me by a different name, like call me God or your majesty, I’m just asking you to call me a human being,” said Jose Patiño, a DREAMer in Phoenix.

So how do we fix this?

“I think it is really important to broaden our perspective and think about the things that unite us and try to be more thoughtful about the way we talk about or think about other groups of people,” stated Diaz-McConnell.