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President Obama’s usage of the term “illegal immigrants” is more than just semantics

President Obama’s usage of the term “illegal immigrants” is more than just semantics

LatinaLista — Whoever created the phrase "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me" was just plain dishonest.

Obama delivers his push for healthcare reform to a joint session of Congress.
No matter how many times we were taught to let insults "roll off our backs" the truth of the matter is words do hurt, and what we've learned in our current polarizing political climate, is that they can carry a bigger punch than any physical fist-clenched hit.
Knowing that words matter, and some more than others, it was disappointing to hear President Obama repeatedly use the term "illegal immigrant" in his recent healthcare speech to the joint session of Congress.
In the past, he has referred to this population by its more accurate description of "undocumented immigrants" and so the prevailing thought among immigrant advocates is that the President's use of the term was a subtle political olive branch to those like "Joe the Congressional Heckler" Wilson.
Yet, as we now know, the usage of the term didn't appease anyone but merely added to the antagonism already felt by some in the room -- not to mention that it elevated a term regarded by many as hate speech as now having White House approval.


For many in the media and politics, the term "illegal immigrant" has become shorthand for the longer more cumbersome "undocumented immigrant." The shorter version definitely rolls off the tongue more quickly, fits more neatly into space-cramped headlines - whether online or in print - and the assumption is that it embodies concisely what the speaker is trying to describe - immigrants who are here illegally.
But that really isn't the case.
The two words -- "illegal" and "immigrant" when thrown together as such create the impression that immigrants are illegal. They are not. They may be undocumented and living here illegally but they themselves are not illegal humans.
The notion that any human is illegal would be laughable if it were not for the fact that there has been a long sad history in this country, and other countries, where certain groups perceiving themselves to be elite have looked down on people of color or who were different from themselves, and for all practical purposes, considered those people to be illegal in terms of being able to claim full rights afforded to all humans.
To the casual bystander witnessing/reporting on the illegal immigration debate, the term "illegal immigrant" seems like an innocent way to describe this demographic. Plus, it saves reporters, writers, politicians and speakers from having to explain whom they are talking about.
Everybody knows who an "illegal immigrant" is referring to.
A couple of years ago, I had used the term in one of my posts and I was immediately scolded by some of my fellow bloggers in the Latino blogosphere. I had used it because it fit all the criteria I had previously mentioned -- it was convenient, short and evoked an immediate understanding from the reader, plus all my colleagues in mainstream media were using it.
Yet, I failed to realize one thing -- that was rightly pointed out by my blogosphere friends -- the use of it only perpetuates the condoning of a term that goes beyond two simple words.
The term has been effectively adopted as the rallying cry for hate groups who see undocumented immigrants as the first wave of some imaginary Hispanic takeover of the country.
The term, as it's now used, goes beyond describing the legal status of a group of people but is used to insinuate a diabolical lawlessness in this group that just isn't true and who are only guilty of letting visas expire or crossing the border illegally which are not felonies and far from heinous crimes.
The term has become synonymous with justifying racial profiling and citizen assaults by dehumanizing the individual and giving the impression that anyone who has this label attached to them isn't worthy of basic human rights or constitutional considerations.
It is far from an innocent phrase used to describe a group of people.
The National Association of Hispanic Journalists even issued a call to all news media to stop using the term and other such terms that are meant to only incite hatred and are grammatically incorrect to boot.
Unfortunately, as we know most mainstream journalists still prefer the term "illegal immigrant." Yet, what's worse is that there are some Latina/o journalists still using the derogatory term as well, even as they defend the undocumented.
For President Obama to reverse his previous course and use a term that dehumanizes a group of people characterized as being Latino in origin does not advance the cause of reforming healthcare or immigration policies.
Rather it reinforces and validates the idea that these people are "illegal humans."
It is only a matter of time before this term will join the ranks of every other embarrassing derogatory term used in our nation's history to villify, demean and shame a particular group of people.
But it's become increasingly clear -- we can't wait for history to make that judgement call.

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