Monday, July 04, 2005

A Work in Progress

"Illegal alien" is a racist term

Racism is prejudice or discrimination based on the belief that race is the primary factor determining human traits and abilities. Racism includes the belief that genetic or inherited differences produce the inherent superiority or inferiority of one race over another. In the name of protecting their race from "contamination," some racists justify the domination and destruction of races they consider to be either superior or inferior. Institutional racism is racial prejudice supported by institutional power and authority used to the advantage of one race over others.

I wanted to start with the above definition of racism because while not wholly applicable it serves as a touchstone for my argument. The term ‘illegal immigrant’ is at best an insensitive term, and worst it is racist. Where it falls on the scale depends on the user and the context. A lot of what I write here is taken from what I know and what I feel. I am not going to claim this as my original thought, nor is it an academic piece. If it was, I would have to take some time and look for references to substantiate it (which I can do).

Why racism?
The United States was founded primarily by subjects of the English Crown. Others who immigrated to the 13 colonies prior to the founding of the country tended to be Northern European. In any case the emigrants were Caucasian. The notable exception to this is the black population of slaves, and the Native Americans.

The United States, as a nation of immigrants has had a horrible history of accommodating each new wave of immigration – the Germans, Irish, Italians, etc. The worst treatment happened to the Chinese and the Mexicans primarily because these people looked different – they were of different races. Chinese people are clearly Asian, and Mexican immigrants tend to be those with more Native American heritage. In either case these people are not Caucasian.

As commented on before many undocumented workers in the country today are not Latino. They may cross the Mexican or Canadian border without permission, overstay or violate their visa; however, academic studies, and some of the comments made previously, have shown that when people here the term ‘illegal immigrant’ or ‘illegal alien’ they think of Mexicans. Therefore, while the terms ‘illegal immigrant’ or ‘illegal alien’ are facially neutral terms, but in reality there is a disparate impact and a strong correlation to the race of the person being referenced.

To be straight with the difference between meanings of words and beliefs and connotations, the poor treatment of some immigrants has its roots in economics and racism. Acknowledging this increases the value of all legitimate claims of real racism. Some of this was addressed by President Clinton’s Initiative on Race. You can download the final report here

What is illegal?
Illegality is a legal construct. It exists solely because we as a nation have defined legality. This definition reflects the desires of the resident population to keep others out. While this may be a laudable or necessary goal, history has shown that the people who have born the brunt of exclusion have been people of races not Caucasian.

The etymology of the phrase "illegal alien" is problematic and has only negative connotations. "Illegal" is well, not legal, and "alien," is foreigner. Legality is particularly problematic because it is subject and has changed over the years. Using the Mexican example, in the western United States they went from being peoples of a sovereign nation, to foreign nationals, to territorial citizens, to U.S. citizens. Lines were drawn in the sand that did not reflect the reality of the peoples who lived there.

The Chinese laborers imported in the middle of the 19th century to build the railroads became targets of abuse and exclusion. During the Depression in California, many people who looked Mexican were rounded up and deported without due process simply based on the way they looked – because they were ‘illegals.’ Anyone who knows the history of the Bracero Program (1942 – 1963) knows that the definition of who was legal has changed when it benefited the United States. The end result is that the borders have gone from being a convenient divide to a militarized zone - and the workers are the ones who suffer in this war. While I have spoken about the Chinese and the Mexicans – it would be unfair not to mention the internment of the Japanese or the occupation of the Philippines in the 20th Century - both of these are related.

It’s the economy stupid
The United States is a nation built by immigrants. While the term "illegal alien" may be in common usage, it is inherently a pejorative term. It is meant to dehumanize those people, mainly economic immigrants, who don't have the documentation needed to work here legally. This population is already persecuted and underprivileged. A lot of citizens have the misconception that undocumented workers come to this country to steal jobs, or take advantage of social services provided for the legal residents. This is not true.

There is a clear disparity between these workers and their legal counterparts. Many of them pay taxes, but they live on the fringe of society. In fact the benefits that an undocumented immigrant can receive are limited (on the federal level I think its Medicaid and Food Stamps). They do not use many of the services offered to their legal counterparts for fear of being turned in. It is false that they hurt our nation economically.

Contrary to some of what has said immigrants do not destroy the free market … but they are victims of it. As an example, farmers in this country can’t compete with the farmers in other countries, so the U.S. has given them all sorts of protections. Rather than make them compete in the free market, it turns a blind eye so they can illegally import workers that would make them more competitive. Our nation has always needed cheap labor. At first there were indentured workers and slaves – then sharecroppers. Undocumented workers harvest fruits and vegetables, wash cars, work in restaurants, clean buildings, and take care of people's children. These are jobs that the majority of people who can work here legally don’t want to do for the wages offered. If rlc doesn’t agree with me then I’d like him to swear off vegetables for a while …

Undocumented workers aspire to live the "American Dream." It is the intentional marginalization of these immigrants that has bad consequences (lack of health care, job protections, victimization by criminals, etc). Our economy needs these workers, but we as a nation won’t recognize this need and grant them the status or the protections they needs.

In summary
In the name of protecting the country from illegal immigrants some people can justify the domination and destruction of other people they consider inferior. Institutional racism exists in this country because of racial prejudice supported by the government.

I agree with seand when he said, I am not sure that everyone who uses the term is necessarily waving "the banner of intolerance." Knowing that this will one day be googled by someone, what amazes me is the level of indifference, ignorance, xenophobia or outright hostility I’ve seen posted here. The lack of charity and compassion is amazing. Whatever you say about immigrants, I hope you think twice before you use the term illegal immigrant again.

Just my 2¢.



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