Aaron Regunberg: Stop Calling Them “Illegals”

Friday, September 30, 2011


This week, the Rhode Island Board of Governors voted unanimously to allow undocumented students who’ve grown up here in Rhode Island to pay the in-state tuition rate to state universities. It is a wonderful and heartening victory, and (though it won’t mean much coming from me) I want to salute the Governor, every member of the Board, and—most importantly— all of the incredible people who have fought for so many years to make this day possible.

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This article isn’t about in-state tuition, however. The folks out there who disagree with that policy aren’t going to have their minds changed by any argument—moral, economic, or otherwise—that I can make in the confines of this piece, and the good news is that that’s okay for now, because the policy has already passed

The issue I want to bring up here is one of words. Specifically, the way we talk about things matters. For example, last Sunday when GoLocalProv posted the headline, “BREAKING: Chafee Calls for Funding Higher Education for Illegals,” the GLP News Team was saying much more than that the Governor announced his support for in-state tuition. It was broadcasting another message, and one that is incredibly dangerous: that the hard-working students who will be helped by this policy are not real, living, empathizable people, but something else entirely. Illegals.

Because here’s the truth: a person cannot be illegal. A person can do something illegal (for example, the minor civil—not criminal—infraction of entering this country without proper documentation). And a person can own an item that is illegal. But a man or a woman or a child cannot himself or herself be an ‘illegal’ under our current system of law. There have, admittedly, been certain historical regimes that did make particular groups of people illegal; in Nazi Germany it was a capital offense to be a Jew, and our own country criminalized persons of Japanese descent on the West Coast during WWII. But such policies are pretty unanimously considered to be among the most immoral actions that states have ever taken, and for good reason—it is fundamentally repugnant to all of our human sensibilities to classify another person as, by their very existence, being against the law.

So when people use the term ‘illegal’ to refer to another person (and I’m sure a bunch of them will do so in the comments following this article), they are actually doing some serious intellectual work. As I demonstrated above, most of us are, by nature, reluctant to think of other humans as being illegal. When groups like Rhode Islanders for Immigration Law Enforcement or the Rhode Island Tea Party or even the GLP News Team confront us with a term that we know refers to a person but which we are indisposed to actually connect in our minds to a human being, they are sending—and we are often unconsciously absorbing—the powerful and incredibly dangerous message that these immigrants we are talking about are not actually people, not actually human beings just like us with thoughts and desires and problems and negative character traits and positive qualities and all the other wonderful complexities that make humans so intrinsically worthy of respect. No, they are something else. They are illegals (and alien ones, at that).

A Dangerous Message

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Why do I call this message incredibly dangerous? Because if we don’t have to think of certain people as being fully human, if instead we can conceptualize them as being something ‘other’ and unrelatable, then we don’t have to treat them as we are morally obligated to treat full humans. Folks often ask how so many Germans under the Nazi regime could have participated in such monstrous atrocities against Jewish people. The answer, of course, is that they didn’t see Jewish people. They saw Jewish beings that, thanks to cultural hatreds and a powerful Nazi propaganda machine, had been devalued from humans into something else entirely. In order to oppress people, we have always had to first strip away their humanity.

And, time and time again, words have been essential to this process. In fact, I would argue that there has never been an example of the systemic oppression of a certain group of people that did not involve dehumanizing labels. In the months leading up to the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the leaders of the Hutu Power movement engaged in an intensive propaganda campaign to brand Tutsis as ‘cockroaches.’ That is, in large part, what created an atmosphere in which Hutus could brutally attack their neighbors in mass numbers, according to the director of the human rights organization African Rights, who said recently in an interview with American RadioWorks: “In Rwanda they referred to Tutsis as cockroaches. They were not human beings. This is very important to understand. They said, ‘Don't worry, you're not killing humans like you. You are killing some vermin that belongs under your shoe. You're killing cockroaches.’”

Dehumanizing Treatment Lives On

Another hard-to-ignore example of the power of words can be seen in our own nation’s treatment of African Americans. How could an entire class of people in the Antebellum South enslave, whip, murder, and rip apart the families of millions of black people over hundreds of years? Again, the answer is that slaveowners didn’t see their human property as black people. They saw them as niggers, who were different from humans and so were not eligible for the empathy that makes such acts the unimaginable horror that we all understand them to be. In fact, words played such an important role in this dehumanizing differentiation between blacks and whites that our society had different terms for every kind of black person—black kids weren’t children, they were pickaninnies, and half-blacks weren’t persons of mixed descent, they were mulattoes (as in relating to mules). Even after slavery was abolished, these terms lived on and so, as we all know, did the dehumanizing treatment of African Americans.

Kaffirs in South Africa, American Indian savages, the list goes on and on. These words really matter, and their usage has always accomplished a specific goal. At the Board of Governors meeting last Monday, opponents of the in-state tuition policy relied heavily on the dehumanizing effects of labels like ‘illegal alien.’ It’s hard, after all, to argue so fervently that kids—real human kids, who could just as easily be our own sons or daughters—don’t deserve to pay a fair price for higher education in a state they’ve called home almost all their lives. But if we can remove the fact that these are actual people, actual students who just happen to be undocumented, and instead think of them only as illegal aliens…well, that makes the argument a whole lot easier to swallow, in the exact same way that the oppression of certain groups has been made easier in all the historical examples above.

We need to be conscious of the language we use and the effects it can have. And those of us who broadcast our words out for many others to hear have a particular responsibility on this front. We may have our moral and philosophical and political disagreements, but in the end, we will all be safer and happier and freer in a world in which no person can be thought of as a cockroach or a savage or an illegal, but rather as a person. We are all human beings, and the moment we begin to lose sight of this is the moment we begin to compromise everything we, as humans, hold dear.

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