I naively thought that the Senate’s Gang of Eight was unified in changing the tone and rhetoric surrounding the country’s endlessly tedious debate on immigration reform.
I was wrong.
Such is the case of Senator John McCain, one of the more visible G8 members, and his latest town hall meeting Monday in Phoenix. While McCain’s latest forum lacked the bizarreness of his February meetings, Monday’s event was a downer. McCain played down his optimism about getting a deal done, saying that there were still more details to iron out. It was the same old game: those against reform thought McCain was an amnesty lover, and those for reform wondered what was taking so long.
Then someone asked McCain about the “i-word,” and McCain responded: “Someone who crosses our borders illegally is here illegally. You can call it whatever you want to, but it’s illegal. I think there’s a big difference between someone who does something that’s illegal and someone who’s undocumented. I’ll continue to call it illegal.”
That type of explanation could have worked in 2007, but no longer in 2013. The terms “illegal immigrant” or “illegal” (as if it were a noun) have become negative code words for “Latino,” connoting an overgeneralized perception of criminality. Those who criticize it as political correcteness gone overboard miss the point entirely. You might laugh, but when many hear comments like McCain’s, he might as well be saying this, especially in the context of Arizona: “A Latino who crosses our borders illegally is here illegally and Latino.”
Much has been written about this, so I won’t rehash the arguments that say that the time is now to literally change the media dialogue. However, for those who still don’t get it, are you ready to call those who park in the fire lane, “illegal parkers?” Those who don’t pay taxes “illegal tax payers?” What about “illegal drunk drivers” or “illegal bank robbers?” In the end, all these examples sound silly, but when it comes to immigrants, that is exactly the problem. The label is dehumanizing and means so much more than what it used to mean. Case in point, a Dominican immigrant can’t even celebrate a PowerBall ticket win without having his status questioned. Still, the defenders cry foul when they see campaigns to drop such language.
At least Senator Marco Rubio, another G8 member, has begun to introduce the term “undocumented” into the conversation, as he told The Wall Street Journal earlier this year: ”In an ideal world we wouldn’t have eight, 10 million people who are undocumented. We have to address this reality. But we have to do it in a way that’s responsible.”
Those who use the term “illegal” continue to perpetuate the perception that this is all about rounding up the Latino criminals, when the issue isn’t even about criminal offenses. As a result, the immigration debate stays stuck on an enforcement-heavy myth (we have the most secure border in over 40 years and the highest number of deportations ever), antagonizes U.S. Latino voters, and does little to address the realities that the vast majority of those who enter this country do so for a better life by filling the lower strata of a U.S. demand for cheap labor and jobs that Americans don’t want to do.
Apparently the use of the “i word” is a bipartisan issue. When G8 member Senator Chuck Schumer tossed out the word “illegals” on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” two months ago and continues to ignore his poor choice of words, you know there is still much work to do. This morning I reached out to Schumer’s office for the 8th time, and his office has yet to respond to my constant requests for a formal comment.
Let’s be clear: “no human being is illegal.” There is no debate.
Julio Ricardo Varela (@julito77 ) founded LatinoRebels.com in May, 2011 and proceeded to open it up to about 20 like-minded Rebeldes. His personal blog, juliorvarela.com, has been active since 2008 and is widely read in Puerto Rico and beyond. In the past 12 months, Julito represented the Rebeldes on Face the Nation, NPR, Univision, Forbes, and The New York Times.