Monday, January 07, 2008

Semantic Smokescreens

[Originally posted at on May 25, 2006]

I sent the following response to Mirta Ojito, whose "No Human Being Is Illegal" was published by the Miami Herald on May 24.

Dear Ms. Ojita:

I just read your piece entitled "No Human Being is Illegal." Like you, I agree that linguistic precision is very important in changing people's attitudes toward every day events. This, however, is not a semantic matter, but a legal one. The humanity of immigrants is not at issue. Their behavior is.

I myself am an immigrant, of the "legal" kind. I came to this country from Italy in 1993, with my wife, who is a U.S. citizen born and raised in Pittsburgh, PA. One of the first thing that struck me as odd--even a tad insulting--in this land of oddities, was the use of the official word "alien" to describe foreigners. I thought it was telling that this nation, founded by immigrants as it was, had grown so insular and self-involved as to term people from different lands "aliens." Everything around me confirmed my initial impression. Most newscasts on TV are devoted to local news. Most newspapers deal predominantly with local issues. Little or no time, or space, is ever devoted to what happened outside the United States, with the exception of humanitarian catastrophes or VIP gossip. Before the Internet became mainstream, I had to call home if I wanted to keep up with what was going on in my homeland, or in Europe on the whole. After 13 years in this country, I have accepted the fact that for many Americans it does not make any difference whether I come from another country on this planet, or from a different planet altogether, so great are some of the cultural differences that separate me from people born and raised in the U.S.

As I already said, I entered the country legally. That technically makes me a "legal alien." If I objected at all, I would object to the use of the noun alien. I have no problem, however, with the use of the adjective legal to differentiate me, and all those who—like me—jumped through all the bureaucratic hoops, from those who entered the country illegally. Surely, there must be extenuating circumstances for a large number of immigrants who started their search for a better life by breaking the law. Coming to this country without permission is an act of desperation for many, while for others it is a matter of being reunited with family members who have already been here for some time. Perhaps you would prefer to term them "clandestine immigrants," as we do in Italy. Or, perhaps, there is a more accurate and humane term to describe them, like "economic refugees." Yet, none of that changes the fact that immigrants who circumvented legal impediments to enter the country have broken the law, and that calling them "illegal immigrants", while semantically questionable, is technically not wrong.

Unfortunately, the debate over immigration has been drawn to extremes, on both sides of the issue. There are many who, blinded by bigotry, see immigrants as a scourge and blame them for all of society’s ills. Many more fail to see that a country that trying to deal with immigration purely on a law and order basis is a failure of the imagination and an admission of ignorance. Conversely, when hundreds of thousands of immigrants filled the streets of the United States in protest a few weeks ago, those in the crowd who were proudly waving Mexican flags were doing nothing to engender empathy in a citizenry already on the defensive. Also, while I would have a lot to say (of which very little is positive) about the concept of patriotism, I find the idea of the U.S. anthem being sung in Spanish ill-conceived, and counterproductive for supporters of immigrants.

When you say that "The immigrant's status is of less consequence to the anti-immigrant crowd than the actual human being who speaks only Spanish and tends to have caramel-colored skin," you write as if U.S. citizens objected to the presence of Mexicans simply because of their nationality. There is much evidence to the contrary. Many concessions have already been made to Hispanics that have not been extended to citizens of other countries. Government forms are printed both in English and Spanish. Public announcements are often made in both English and Spanish. Public offices employ bilingual speakers. Children are taught in both Spanish and English, in many public schools. I doubt that these widespread concessions, of which Hispanics are the sole recipients among foreigners, would have been made if U.S. citizens were animated by a desire to discriminate against Hispanics.

As the debate rages on, framing it in terms of linguistic accuracy seems futile. The real issues are not linguistic. They are, of course, economic. As more and more legal workers in the United States find themselves underpaid or out of a job altogether, illegal immigrants become the object of their resentment. While linguistic concerns are valid, we should not spend too much time on them; instead, we should focus our attention on the very real causes of economic and social inequality, and on the political disenfranchisement of a growing number of individuals, legal or illegal as they might be, plagued by taxation without representation.

Those who pull the strings have artfully pitted citizens and immigrants against each another. Who benefits? Follow the money.

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