Wetback. Spic. Terrorist. Chink. Most at Swarthmore wouldn’t dare address an immigrant or person of color with one of these terms. Yet the framework for the immigration debate commonly uses the term “illegal immigrant” or “illegal alien” to describe a resident of this country who does not have proper documentation. Moreover, these terms have even been shortened and turned into a noun to simply call someone an “illegal.” Colorlines, a news site that concentrates on race matters, has spearheaded the “Drop the ‘I-word’” campaign which calls for the media and government to refrain from using the word illegal on the grounds that it takes away a person’s humanity and derails conversation about immigration and human rights. It’s racially charged, legally inaccurate, and morally wrong. We in Swatties for a DREAM are calling Swarthmore to drop the I-word in our daily vocabulary.
“Illegal” has a negative connotation, evoking criminality. By calling someone illegal, it reduces their personhood to being illegal. No human is illegal. This is an important distinction that needs to be made for the respect, dignity, and humanity of those who live and work hard in this country to make an honest living even if the government does not recognize them.
I lived in this country as an undocumented immigrant for many years and it made me feel vulnerable and weak. When someone calls you illegal, even in the most well intentioned way, the word itself has a hurtful bite to it. It sounds like your existence is a lie, a crime, and you are a problem that must be dealt with. Now imagine when someone actually uses the word with malice by barking it insultingly–remember also the damage and hurt it causes. This is often the scenario for many undocumented residents of this country, from daily interactions, to media, to a politician’s heated rant on immigration. It is frightful to hear how much a person can hate you without knowing you. The word “undocumented,” on the other hand, deals specifically with one aspect of a person: their immigration status.
Whether or not one’s residence in a country is properly documented can be dealt with on its own. I won’t deal with the politics of immigration in this op-ed as we can each have the right to our own view on immigration. This op-ed is about recognizing the people and the lives labeled as “illegal,” in the hope of establishing a framework for discourse that still holds respect and dignity for immigrants who don’t deserve to be called “illegal.”
It’s the 21st century, and undocumented Americans are stepping out of the shadows, proclaiming “Undocumented and Unafraid” to profess their immigration status openly without fear of the consequences. Simultaneously, they are also taking control of their representation in the media in hopes of comprehensive immigration reform. “UndocuQueer Art” is a unique movement that stemmed from this progress, where undocumented students who identify as queer express themselves freely in various art forms as means to claim their existence in this nation as well.
Swatties often declare a keen sense of social conscience. Being part of this movement is only right for our campus. Although this isn’t an apparent issue on campus, it’s something to be aware of so we are more cautious with our words that can unknowingly affect someone on campus or anywhere else the topic of immigration is brought up.
As a group, we, the members of Swatties for a DREAM, advocate for an increase of awareness in undocumented issues from a national immigration reform like the DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minorities Act) to equitable admissions for undocumented students at Swarthmore. The framework set up here with using the word “undocumented” helps us, as a student body, have a platform to respectfully discuss many topics on this matter.
Uriel Medina Espino ’16 is a member of Swatties for a DREAM.