The history of immigration in the United States is long and storied. Like most stories, it is best told with words. But the words used to describe immigrants in America are not what one would expect from a nation founded on, built by, and dependent on immigration. In fact, the language used can be thoroughly degrading to the point of dehumanization. It is no coincidence that this language is used to advance policies that scapegoat immigrants and create divisions between groups of people.
One of the first restrictions placed on immigrants was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which, among other things, “suspended the immigration of Chinese laborers (skilled or unskilled) for a period of 10 years” and “required every Chinese person traveling in or out of the country to carry a certificate identifying his or her status as a laborer, scholar, diplomat, or merchant.” (1) Another prominent example of discriminatory immigration restriction is the National Security Entry-Exit Registry System (NSEERS) that was put into place after September 11. This program mandated registration by all non-citizen visa holders. (2) The key here was that the majority of targeted countries were Muslim-Arab majority countries, leading to the further marginalization of this immigrant community. These are only a few among many ways the United States has restricted legal immigrants. These actions set the stage for the subtle aggressions and euphemisms used to describe immigrants and discriminatory policies today.
This article is not about the policy debate surrounding illegal immigration or immigration in general but rather an exploration into the way language and rhetoric shape our perception of other human beings.
Apart from the outward racism that immigrants face, there are subtleties in the language used to describe their lives and journeys that affect our perception of immigrant life. These linguistic subtleties are then used to shape immigration policy, becoming ingrained in our subconscious and shaping the integration, treatment, or deportation of these individuals.
Language is one of the first elements we learn as children. It is a very basic principle of our development and existence, determining how we make friends and create relationships. The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis in psychology states that language isn’t simply how we voice our thoughts; it shapes our ideas and perceptions of reality. (3) Keeping that in mind, it becomes necessary to recognize that harsh and dangerous language, when it is deployed to describe human life, can help us to understand violence and hatred directed at the immigrant population.
The immediate example that comes to mind are the words “alien,” “undocumented alien,” and “illegal alien.” The term “alien” has become so ingrained in our rhetoric on immigration that it has become too closely associated with how we describe a human life. The term “alien” immediately conjures up childhood experiences of hearing the word used in movies to describe weird, unknown creatures living in outer space. One has to wonder how such a colloquial, childish and prejudicial term has become rooted in our language to reference someone who has immigrated from another country. By normalizing this term once reserved for creatures with 6 or 8 arms and green bodies and are determined to destroy planet Earth, we have paved the way for children to be raised in a society where their classmates may be deemed "aliens," where we excuse the side glances or uncomfortable smiles because these “aliens" are speaking or acting in a way that is "foreign" to us.
In the best-case scenario, immigrants go from being "aliens" to "naturalized" citizens of the United States. According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, to become “naturalized” you must undergo a variety of tests, among other qualifications. (4) These tests consist of a speaking exam to gauge an immigrant’s English abilities (they must be able to read sentences aloud), and interestingly a civics test which consists of 10 questions out of a possible 100. While elements of the naturalization process may be troubling, the term "naturalization" is itself alarming. Merriam-Webster has multiple definitions for "naturalization," but the one that stands out most is “to bring into conformity with nature.” (5) This definition points a disturbing finger towards the presumed illegitimacy of an immigrant’s previous lived experience. It indicates an erasure of their past customs, language and much more by suggesting the United States is the natural choice, that becoming a citizen provides a sort of allegiance with the U.S. that allows you to be defended. These circumstances aren't reserved for specific groups of immigrants. They extend to all visa and green card holders. Essentially, any immigrant who isn’t naturalized is unworthy of defense, placed into a different class of personhood. Until immigrants are naturalized they are seen as the other.
A couple of months ago I saw a protest sign that read “No human being is illegal.” It struck me how such a simple phrase could strike at the core of this debate on the validity of a human life. By referring to children, families, or working individuals as "illegal immigrants" we are revoking their status as humans. We are telling our children that a person who doesn’t have papers isn’t a person at all and that we in the United States don’t deem them worthy of being called “human immigrants.” Even as I write “human immigrants,” it seems stilted because we have become so accustomed to this interchange of “illegal” and “immigrant" in America. We forget that ultimately, immigrants are humans too. We have replaced their humanity with legal jargon, and in doing so, replaced their stories, their families, and their unique backgrounds with callous and dismissive catch-all terms that fail to say anything meaningful about millions of people. "Illegal" no longer suggests their status as an immigrant. “Illegal" has in fact become a way to describe their way of life.
The unfortunate truth is that by debating which category to place immigrants in, whether it be asylum seeker, refugee, visa holder, or illegal immigrant, they are coming to this country seeking a new life, a safe haven, and new opportunities. In the most serious of cases, we are wasting critical time debating how to label our fellow humans. In the months and years that have been swallowed by this discussion, countless immigrants and refugees have died. We have become so fixated on the intricacies of who fits in what category that we forget the lives of our fellow humans. The importance of labelling has become such a central part of immigration in America that it has become more important than the humanity it represents.
1. Historian, O. o. t. Chinese Immigration and the Chinese Exclusion Acts. Retrieved from https://history.state.gov/milestones/1866-1898/chinese-immigration.
2. Muaddi, N. (2016). The Bush-era Muslim registry failed. Yet the US could be trying it again. CNN. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2016/11/18/politics/nseers-muslim-database-qa-trnd/.
3. Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. (1998). Oxford University Press.
4. Services, U. S. C. a. I. (2013). Citzenship Through Naturalization. Retrieved from https://www.uscis.gov/us-citizenship/citizenship-through-naturalization.