Stop Saying the 'I' Word: No human being is illegal

Stop Saying the 'I' Word: No human being is illegal
Young Kwak photo
One thousand three hundred miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, the Greyhound Bus Station in Spokane allowed U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents to indiscriminately target undocumented immigrants.

I have been accused of being a radical leftist professor. A self-centered academic, perched on an ivory tower, looking down on those who don't hang on my every word.

As a critical race education scholar, my teaching is centered on transformational dialogue. This method of teaching and learning invites my students to a deeper understanding of meaning because it gives us many different perspectives of the world we share. It intentionally centers the voices of those historically marginalized, including queer women of color, Indigenous people, Latinx, African Americans, and the working poor to name several. Consequently, if the saying that those closest to the problem are the most equipped to solve it, it is imperative we look forward to their solution.

When we pay attention to those who have been disenfranchised from our society, we open up the possibility of positive social change. For example, scholar/activist Angela Davis urged that "if this is something that you believe is important, if you really do believe that Black lives matter, the very least we can do is read, watch and listen to what has been put out into the world for us already."

Therefore, this column isn't about me. It's about the devastating impact the "I" word has on brutally othering people. And anyone using the pejorative term should take a pause and listen to those who have faced the consequential horror. Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel said that "no human being is illegal. That is a contradiction in terms. Human beings can be beautiful or more beautiful... but illegal? How can a human being be illegal?"

When we aren't mindful of our intent, and subconsciously repeat the noise around us, it can have a violent impact. The recent surge in hate crimes against the Asian community is evidence of such irresponsible use of language. However, these transgressions aren't new. The harmful discourse can be traced back to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Authors Wayne Au and Moé Yonamine validate the connection by stating that "the racism, the devaluing of life of Asians and Asian Americans, the dehumanizing of immigrant workers, the fetishism of — and violence toward — Asian women have been perpetuated throughout U.S. history."

This blemished past is hardly mentioned in K-12 public schools. In the classroom, we are taught that citizenship is good, and because of this the migrant is seen as someone who is less deserving of human rights. Historian Jeff Chang says "migration is always a choice to live. The opposite of migration is not citizenship. It is containment, the condition of being unfree shared with all who are considered less than citizens. The migrant reminds the citizen of the rights that they should be guaranteed."

It's much easier to use the "I" word when you're not forced to be the other. Therefore, we should be cognizant and avoid using the harmful word altogether, because as Wiesel mentioned, "once you label a people 'illegal,' that is exactly what the Nazis did to Jews. You do not label a people 'illegal.'"

When we aren't properly educated about our U.S. history of exclusion, grounded in White supremacy, we are doomed to repeat it over and over again. Another current example is throwing undocumented babies in cages. There's no excuse, rhyme or reason for a separation policy that forcefully ripped children from the arms of their parents. More than 700 kids had been taken away from their caretaker and almost 450 of them are still without their loved ones today. Former President Donald Trump strongly implemented and supported this no-tolerance policy, saying, "When you prosecute the parents for coming in illegally — which should happen — you have to take the children away."

The culpability of dehumanizing people and using the "I" word isn't just on Republicans. It is also on Democrats. The Obama administration deported more people than any sitting president in the United States. President Joe Biden is following suit despite a promise to stop deportations during his campaign. According to United We Dream, there have been more than 300,000 people deported under Biden within his first 100 days in office.

Former President Bill Clinton, building on the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 signed into law by Ronald Reagan, played a major role in why so many people have been forced to migrate from Latin America to the United States. Despite the dehumanizing rhetoric perpetuated by mainstream media, immigrants seek better opportunities to find work so they can feed their families. This lack of work is because of U.S. policies like the North American Free Trade Agreement that has depleted life resources in these communities. Mexicans were promised that NAFTA would bring equitable wages similar to the U.S. and Canada. Today, because of these policies, "two million Mexicans engaged in farming lost their livelihoods and lands, tens of thousands of small businesses have gone bankrupt as American big-box retailers moved in, and poverty remains widespread," according to the nonprofit organization Public Citizen.

Locally, these acts are more direct and easier to be seen. One thousand three hundred miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, the Greyhound Bus Station in Spokane allowed U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents to indiscriminately target undocumented immigrants on the bus by doing routine checks, according to the Associated Press.

These xenophobic sweeps have gained national attention after being caught on camera by fellow passengers. Despite discriminatory practices and human rights violations, Greyhound gave the agents permission to do these questionable searches because it is a private company. Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward praised the agents and said they were "doing an incredible service at the intermodal station when you see the arrests that they're making with the illegals and especially in the drug trade."

Referring to human beings by using the "I" word denies them their humanity. It makes it easier for people to accept laws and policies no matter how harsh and cruel. It also doesn't help when false narratives suggest that immigrants bring crime and violence to cities, notwithstanding the rate dropping in recent years across the U.S. According to Anna Flagg of the New York Times, "The analysis found that crime went down at similar rates regardless of whether the undocumented population rose or fell."

There are just over 10 million undocumented people living in the United States, and despite not be able to receive basic life resources because of their status, they acquiescently contribute $12 billion in taxes, according to the Anti-Defamation League. There are many misconceptions about immigration that we need to understand before we engage in these important conversations.

Personally, I do not identify as a Democrat, a Republican, a liberal or a conservative. Whether it be inside or outside of the classroom, I try to not situate myself or any of my students in any categorical social position. You lose more freedom conforming to a polarizing idea than when you genuinely follow your heart. Therefore, regardless of my title, I will always be in solidarity with the beautiful and more beautiful, searching for a better life. ♦

Edmundo M. Aguilar is an adjunct professor of race and culture studies at Eastern Washington University. He earned his Ph.D. in cultural studies and social thought in education at Washington State University. His work centers on catalyzing systemic social change through documentary film and other media forms in which he critically interrogates identity and oppressive experiences.

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