Illegal: The Language of Politics and Compassion


I begin my blog posts like any true professional: a basic Google search containing some combination of the words I am interested in. (The tab situation on my Chrome browser is so overloaded, I fear I’m writing on borrowed time until my computer kicks it.)

I am currently sitting at seven tabs encompassing variations on “the cost of illegal immigration.” Full disclosure: that will be the last time I refer to undocumented immigrants as, “illegal.” A human being is never “illegal.” Certainly, people can be here illegally , but the mere existence of a human being in a certain location does not make them illegal. To shed light on this double standard, a good analogy is that we rarely, if ever, refer to a person who trespasses on private property as “illegal.” We can be reasonably sure they are committing a crime, but we don’t generally believe that their presence on forbidden property transforms their entire existence into “illegal.”

Should undocumented people not be afforded the same consideration simply because they, in essence, “trespass” for longer periods of time?

I am fully prepared for an eye rolling complaint that I am heavy handed with the political correctness, but come at me. Words matter. The way we contextualize politics shapes the way we look at the world. It should come as no surprise that when you are accustomed to referring to a person as illegal, essentially equating their physical being with a crime, you grow desensitized to their existence altogether.

You might wonder why I am spending so much time defending my insistence that we should stop calling undocumented immigrants “illegal aliens.” The reality is that Obama deported a record number of immigrants during his presidency. It is impossible to predict how many people Trump will eventually deport (he has claimed between 3 and 11 million individuals) but we aren’t doing ourselves any favors by forgetting that Obama deported more people than George W. Bush did. Ultimately, the difference in how many people Trump deports versus Obama might be negligible.

So if Obama deported 2.5 million people, and Trump eventually deports 3 million, why the outrage over 500,000 people when there was little public response to Obama’s record deportations?

This is an excellent question, and one that I have seen posed by many Trump supporters in the comment sections of Facebook that I just can’t seem to stop reading. My theory is that it all boils down to rhetoric. Remember how words matter? Donald Trump ran his presidential campaign on a platform of open hostility towards the Hispanic population in general and undocumented immigrants specifically. His campaign was the perfect distillation of relegating a human being’s entire existence to an illegal act. In fact, it is often hard for me to tell the difference between the claims he makes in an official capacity and the ridiculous things people say in those same comment sections. You cannot claim that Mexican immigrants are rapists, killers, and druglords who are stealing all of our jobs without providing some very specific data to back that up. To my knowledge, Trump has never offered anything of the sort.

And therein lies the problem. It is extraordinarily difficult to have a nuanced, productive conversation with someone who is capable of reducing an entire country of people to careless stereotypes. It is equally difficult for me to expect that same person to have compassion for undocumented immigrants as individuals if they are so easily seduced by the notion that Mexico is sending only their “bad killers” to live here illegally.

I do suspect, however, that it is much easier to justify mass deportations if you don’t recognize facts that are inconvenient to your world view. Consider, for example, that undocumented immigrants contributed $11.6 billion in state and local taxes in 2016. Those are tax dollars that they won’t benefit from, but citizens will. They are not eligible for most government assistance programs. Or that immigrants are integral to the landscape of the American job-market.

It also makes it easy to ignore the reality of daily life in America for someone who is undocumented. There exist a great many narratives that describe these experiences. Diane Guerrero (fans of Orange is the New Black will recognize her as the character “Maritza”) released a memoir in 2016 that illustrated, in devastating detail, the consequences of being born in America to undocumented parents. I dare anyone to read it and not sympathize with a teenager who comes home from school to find her parents ousted from the country.

I do not cite these examples to ignore the problems that exist because of illegal immigration. But we have covered, exhaustively, the cost it presents to U.S. citizens. They were, after all, a focal point of Donald Trump’s campaign, and continue to be a sticking point as he begins his tenure as president. I think it is imperative that we consider the cost to undocumented immigrants when we cease to acknowledge their individual humanity and instead regard them as a crime statistic.

I don’t have an answer to the question of mass deportation. I do know that the focus of Obama’s efforts was on immigrants who had committed crimes aside from illegal immigration, were already imprisoned, or were being sought for arrest. Trump’s focus on illegal immigration is just starting to emerge, and perhaps it won’t look all that different from Obama’s. But I do know that the language he uses to communicate those plans is more incendiary, and that we must all be vigilant in recognizing his reductionist approach for what it is: a scare tactic aimed at galvanizing Americans into believing the stereotypes he perpetuates.

Further Reading

  • “Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives,” Compiled and edited by Peter Orner
  • “Just Like Us,” by Helen Thorpe










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