I wonder if people who insist upon using the i-word ever think about the impact it has on human lives. “What part of ‘illegal’ don’t you understand?!” they say. Well, as an undocumented immigrant, I need people to understand the traumatic effect this racist language has on us and our families. Many people who don’t experience this reality don’t seem to realize the inescapable feelings of inferiority it creates. Or that we can get to a transparent, thorough dialogue on human rights and humane immigration solutions only when we remove the i-word as a central piece of the conversation.
I am not a law-breaker, but throughout my life, it has felt like the law is trying to break me. My grandfather, a U.S. citizen for more than 30 years, immigrated in 1948. He petitioned for my father to become a U.S. permanent resident in 1989, but only three months into the process, he passed away unexpectedly. The adjustment of my father’s “legal status” became complicated. He decided to bring my mother, my sister and me from Caracas, Venezuela, to New York, so that we could establish ourselves here. My parents wanted my sister and I to get an education and he thought being here he could adjust our “legal status.” That never happened.
Shortly after 9/11, during my freshman year of high school, uncertainty loomed. Instead of high school being a time look forward to the future for hundreds of thousands of dreamers just like me, it was marked by sorrow and hopelessness. Lacking papers meant that I would have to pay out-state-tuition for college, even though I had lived in Florida for most of my life, because I would be considered a “non-resident” student.
In my senior year, I was deeply depressed. I understood that my status was going to prevent me from attending college or any university, joining the military, getting a good job and even obtaining a driver’s license. I felt a lot of resentment toward my father for not adjusting our status. At that time, I didn’t realize that the system makes it nearly impossible for people like me to become “legalized.”
When we migrate to this country, we come to improve our lives, no different than the immigrants of the past centuries, many of whom were also subjected to racism and discrimination, yet whose descendants are revered today for improving our society. What does it say about the current state of our society, when the Supreme Court rules that corporations are considered legal persons and yet human beings are deemed “illegal”? That kind of contradiction reinforces the criminalization of people like me.
It’s been over 21 years and to this day I remain paperless, with no possibilities of becoming a permanent resident without the passage of the DREAM Act. But I no longer feel beaten. I am committed to telling the truth about our broken system and to challenge inhumane ideals, including the use of the i-word.
Historical accounts will affirm that themes tend to repeat, though manifesting differently. Earlier this year, I walked with three other undocumented students 1,500 miles from Miami, Fla., to Washington, D.C., to share our plight and demand that President Obama halt student deportations and end family separation. In Georgia, we encountered dangerous anti-immigrant territory. We were witness to age-old hatred and understood first-hand how hate is tied to the passing down of hateful language.
Alongside the NAACP of Georgia, we went to counter-protest a Ku Klux Klan rally. The KKK rally messages were: stop sex predators, keep prayer in schools, and above all, stop the “illegal immigrant” invasion. There is not much difference between the racist and discriminatory rhetoric the Ku Klux Klan spews and that of anti-immigrant political demagogues and commentators.
But it’s surprising to the see the language seep into journalism and “progressive” circles. There is no getting around the fact that the i-word and its derivatives are meant to demean and criminalize individuals and communities. So long as we’re subject to dehumanization through the use of language, we’ll continue to hear “what part of “illegal” don’t you understand?!” or “illegal means illegal.” It’s offensive that the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein and others associate our efforts to eradicate hateful, racist language with “word games” and trying to “paper over” anti-immigrant anger. Don’t the terms “illegals” and “illegal immigrants” paper over the reality of a global economy and abuse of our human rights?
With these boundaries, the immigration dialogue will remain poisoned, and harsh enforcement and racial profiling practices will persist. I’ll end with the saying that scholars throughout history have reiterated: one can judge a society by how it treats its most vulnerable.
Lee este artículo en español: “¿Qué Parte de Ser Humano no Entiendes?”