I turned on the Republican presidential debate last week and learned something. In today’s GOP, the correct term for a human being who crosses the U.S. border without a visa in search of a brutally difficult, poorly paid job that few native-born Americans wish to do but on which our national economy depends is “illegal.”
Not “illegal immigrant” or even “illegal alien,” which implies that the people cooking our food and making our beds arrived here by spaceship. But merely “illegal.” Maybe in the general election, when Mitt Romney goes trolling for votes in the Southwest, he’ll soften up and merely dehumanize America’s most vulnerable people via adjective. But when you’re battling Rick Perry and Herman Cain, adjectives aren’t good enough. You need the noun.
“Illegal” is the latest in a long line of euphemisms that politicians use to signal their antipathy to a reviled racial or ethnic group, in this case, Latinos. No, no, you say, this has nothing to do with animosity toward Hispanics; it’s about protecting the border and obeying the law. Really? Then why don’t we call the CEOs of the companies that hire illegal immigrants “illegals”? Our last three presidents all violated America’s drug laws. The current Treasury secretary violated America’s tax laws. Former House majority leader Tom DeLay recently was convicted of money laundering. I look forward to hearing Mitt Romney and Fox News refer to them as “illegals” too.
People from nonstigmatized ethnic groups don’t get called “illegals” no matter what they do. When I grew up in Boston in the 1980s, the city was filled with Irish workers with forged immigration papers. But since Irish politicians ran the city, those workers were treated gingerly. In the mid-1990s, after the first World Trade Center attack prompted a federal crackdown on illegal immigrants, agents from what was then called the Immigration and Naturalization Service swooped into Boston and deported 243 undocumented workers from the Dominican Republic and another 16 from tiny Cape Verde. As for the Irish, as Boston Magazine noted in 2008, the INS agents managed to find only four. Had a newscaster in the Boston of my youth called the undocumented Irish “illegals,” he would have been fired.
It’s tempting to dismiss “illegals” as another poll-tested, cotton-candy word that no one takes seriously. After all, if Americans really believed that illegality defined undocumented workers—that they were lawless and dangerous at their core—would millions of families entrust them with the care of their kids?
On the other hand, it’s just possible that the rhetorical dehumanization of millions of Latinos may have something to do with the big spike in anti-Latino hate crimes over the last decade. In 2010, for instance, a Phoenix man named Gary Kelley shot his neighbor, Juan Verela, after yelling, “Go back to Mexico or die!” No word yet on whether Kelley is an “illegal” as defined by Mitt Romney.