A few years back in the run-up to the 2012 US presidential election, an exchange happend that stuck with me during one of the debates between the Republican contenders. The now recently indicted Texas Governor Rick Perry told former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, “You hired illegals in your home and you knew about it for a year?” Perry declared this “the height of hypocrisy,” and arguably had a point. Though Romney never specifically hired an illegal immigrant, his lawn care company did. He saw to it that one of the illegal immigrants, (whose employment with Romney was the subject of a critical piece from the Boston Globe) was fired. Despite this Romney continued using the same company, which continued using illegal immigrant labor. Romney responded to Perry’s assertion, by explaining that he told the company: “Look, you can’t have any illegals working on our property. I’m running for office, for Pete’s sake, I can’t have illegals.”
This sparked a huge reaction because it made Romney (who was already gaining a reputation as an opportunist, willing to adopt whatever position is politically expedient) look as though his primary grievance was not the illegality of what the company was doing, but how it would impact his campaign. Many media outlets went on extensively about how dishonest this made Romney look and questioned his integrity. All of these are important things when considering a candidate, but I was disturbed by the complete lack of concern by the media outlets that our presidential rhetoric had fallen to such a low standard. Is it considered acceptable for them to refer to other human beings as “illegals?”
The term is dehumanizing, dismissive and reflects an “us versus them” mentality. One can argue that it is no worse than calling someone that commits a murder a murderer. After all, these people are here illegally. I disagree. A murderer is someone who has been convicted of committing a murder. Calling a person an illegal is dehumanizing and often racist. Being in the United States without papers may be illegal but hardly criminal in the same way as a murder. It doesn’t make sense, and comes off mean. Illegal immigrants are people. They have real lives and real concerns and a great many of them hard working and contribute to society. Calling them degrading names is not respectable or consistent with human decency, especially when it comes from the very people campaigning to be government leaders.
The context of these debates only seems to make the issue worse, and the candidates are trying to outdo each other on their supposed toughness. They want to be the most xenophobic and reactionary on the issue. Let’s not mention the racist connotation. The word does not conjure up images of boarder hoppers from Canada. In world where blatantly racist language is not permitted on television, this term seems to be catching on because it is a viable substitute.
It is an appeal to the type of voters who believe that the government’s job is to protect American culture. It is the government’s job to protect the rights of its citizens from others so that they can pursue whatever cultural practices they choose, as long as they do not harm others.
Whatever you think the appropriate policies for dealing with illegal immigration are (and I’m sure there is a wide variety of positions about it), Americans and especially our political candidates can talk about it without having to resort to name calling, veiled racism, posturing, and attempts to appeal to the most bigoted voters. Public figures can and should do better. This is a sad reflection on the state of discourse on this subject of illegal immigration. Whether you agree or disagree, with me about this term, I hope you agree that the issue of how we talk about other humans, especially in the political sphere is worth discussing and taking a look at once in a while. Note I am not trying to censor anyone, nor am I advocating using any kind of force to coercion to get people to stop using the term. I am simply asking that we show a little decency.