Sunday Op Ed: A Real National Conversation

( – promoted by buhdydharma )


The other day Duke1676 posted a diary at Daily Kos entitled Words Do Matter Mr. Obama.

See, here’s the thing.  The advocates for progressive immigration reform  have reached a big obstacle when it comes to moving forward on this issue — the progressive activists and the Democratic Party itself.  The challenge is to change the dialogue so that progressive bloggers don’t repeat and feed the same old right-wing memes on the issue — the same old ways that we saw during the “debate” over the Iraq War, over FISA, over the notion that because Democrats are supposedly seen as “weak on security” they have to move far to the right in order to convince the average American otherwise.

The most recent example of this as described in Duke’s diary, is that during President Obama’s speech, he made a point of using the term “illegal immigrant” as a political choice when talking about how undocumented workers will not be covered under healthcare reform legislation.

Yeah, it’s just a word, isn’t it, why get all bent out of shape about it?

If you read the comments in the diary, you’ll see that sentiment expressed — what’s the big deal over a word?  The “word” being “illegal.”

From a podcast Obama gave on May 4, 2006:

We have a system of legal immigration in which people are drawn through the normal processes and they apply for legal residency and ultimately get naturalized as citizens if they so choose. The controversy right now surrounds undocumented workers – people who came here illegally, most of them crossing the border between Mexico and the United States. It’s estimated at this point that we probably have 11 to 12 million undocumented workers around the country. Most of them are employed in low-wage backbreaking work in agricultural sectors, in packing plants, in restaurants, in construction. Obviously, the country feels ambivalent about this influx.

From a floor statement given in April of 2006:

When Congress last addressed this issue comprehensively in 1986, there were approximately 4 million illegal immigrants living in the United States. That number had grown substantially when Congress again addressed the issue in 1996. Today, it is estimated that there are more than 11 million undocumented aliens living in our country.

And from Obama’s recent September 9, 2009 speech to the joint session of Congress:

There are also those who claim that our reform efforts would insure illegal immigrants.  This, too, is false.  The reforms — the reforms I’m proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally.

And one more misunderstanding I want to clear up — under our plan, no federal dollars will be used to fund abortions, and federal conscience laws will remain in place.

(All emphasis mine — and I won’t even go into the abortion issue at this time, though the same analysis would apply.)

As you can see, President Obama is not unaware of the many terms one can use when describing those who have migrated to this country without documentation — whether it be to work here long enough to eventually go home, iow, with no plan of permanently immmigrating, or those who have family here or want to better their lives, or whose livelihood has been destroyed by many of our own policies (i.e.,NAFTA, etc.).  As unwieldy as “undocumented worker” or “undocumented migrant” can sound, there’s a good reason why immigration advocates believe that, as Duke said, “words matter.”

It seems the Democrats understand that as well.  As Duke comments to a skeptical poster, we can see this is not an accidental change of wording:

“I do not believe that a bipartisan immigration bill can be enacted if my colleagues on the other side of the aisle do not believe that Democrats are serious about enforcement,” Schumer told a conference at Georgetown University.

Schumer said Democrats no longer can afford to use soft, euphemistic language about illegal immigration.

“When we use phrases like ‘undocumented workers,’ we convey a message to the American people that their government is not serious about combating illegal immigration, which the American people overwhelmingly oppose.”

McClatchey 6-25-09

Or here:

Schumer said legislation should secure control of the nation’s borders within a year and require that an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants register with the government and “submit to a rigorous process to convert to legal status” or face immediate deportation. Rejecting the euphemism “undocumented workers,” he said: “Illegal immigration is wrong — plain and simple.”

WaPo 6-24-09

“Serious about enforcement.”  Sound familiar?  How about “serious about national security?”  And how did that Republican-lite rhetoric work out for us?  FISA.  Iraq War.  Patriot Act.  I could go on.

If you read Duke’s diary, you’ll see there are real world consequences to this kind of political strategy.  Hate crimes against Latinos are up, regardless of their immigration status.  The use of the word “illegal” to describe a human being does nothing but dehumanize them.  Yes, it’s just a word.  And words have consequences.

It would be easy to lapse into insulting language towards President Obama and accuse him of cynicism and playing politics when it comes to immigration, with the result that the most vulnerable in our society will be the ones to pay the price for that strategy.

But I don’t believe that would be the truth.  It would be simple if it were.

I believe President Obama will work hard for comprehensive immigration reform.

But to begin with the rhetoric of the right immediately limits true “comprehensive” reform — reform that also takes into account the USA’s own egregious foreign policies which have caused folks to have to leave their homes to survive, the horrible detention (read: prison) system where too many folks have died and families have been abused, human rights have been abused, and private corporations such as Halliburton have profited, and the changing of our laws to make it so that local law enforcement are now in the business of checking papers of those with brown skin to make sure they’re “legal.”

I have been struggling for quite a while now on how to speak of this seemingly small point of language to illustrate how the rightward swing of our country has affected even those of good will to feed into dehumanizing and destructive language and ideas.  To get progressives on board when it comes to a real change in dialogue on the issue of immigration will be crucial if we are to live up to the words of Ted Kennedy that President Obama’s spoke of in his speech:

In it, he spoke about what a happy time his last months were, thanks to the love and support of family and friends, his wife, Vicki, his amazing children, who are all here tonight.  And he expressed confidence that this would be the year that health care reform — “that great unfinished business of our society,” he called it — would finally pass.  He repeated the truth that health care is decisive for our future prosperity, but he also reminded me that “it concerns more than material things.”  “What we face,” he wrote, “is above all a moral issue; at stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country.

(emphasis mine)

Until we can see the human beings who are now referred to as “illegal immigrants” or “illegal aliens” first and foremost as human beings, until we can see them first as human beings, we will not live up to that challenge no matter how noble and good our intentions.  And there is no way that our elected officials will change their language and political strategy unless we make that perfectly clear in large numbers — not only advocates, but activists as well.

There are many more notions that are conventional wisdom in this country when it comes to immigration that are not wisdom at all but right wing talking points that have dominated our national conversation for far too long.  But this is the beginning.  That we are speaking here of human beings.

Beginnings are important.  I believe that beginning negotiations using the language and values of our opponents will never serve truth, will never serve social justice, and will never improve the character of our country.


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  1. … at orange.

  2. yet another “issue” that I feel very strongly about, and am pathetically under-informed about as well.

    Excellent essay, NPK, thanks. double rec’d.

    • BruceMcF on September 13, 2009 at 7:58 pm

    … enforcement. And, as Prohibition and the War on Drugs has shown, enforcement focused on the supply side is not serious. Its simply puppet theater, making a show for the suckers in the audience.

    So, first, the Democrats have got to start saying “undocumented workers” and “illegal employers”. To “show they are serious”.

    And then the Republicans have got to follow suit, or else they are not serious about immigration reform, but are in fact still engaged in their rank hypocrisy of decrying “illegal immigration” while encouraging employers to employ undocumented migrants as a tactic to undermine the right of labor to organize.

  3. a dirty word I do not want to hear. As Toque said the first step is to stop calling these nasty peices of legislation reform, Election reform, Financial reform, Health care reform, tort reform, welfare they aren’t reform. Reform is what they call the latest way to tighten the screws that hold us all in the grip of as a blogger once said ‘the giant squid on our face’. I always feel sorry for however is going to be the victim of the latest reform, the real victim always ends up to be our rights as humans. This brand of reform like the fake Christian’s redemption allows the sinners themselves to proclaim the sins are saving us all.        

  4. why to not get the swine flu shot

    Why government is evil if they decide to invade Oak Knoll California

    How she may, if she survives see free abundant green energy and 140 years of active healthy lifespan.

    How and why “diversity” is used by corporate and the “Illuminati” to destroy America and reduce the world population all the way down to 500 million.

    Why “they” (the Illuminati) created America to secure high technology items they needed at the time and why “they” are discarding the United States and it’s concept of freedom and equality for all now.

    • Miep on September 14, 2009 at 1:50 am

    being interviewed on Cspan earlier today, and he stated pretty clearly that illegal immigrants were going to be excluded from any health care plan on the table.

    Meanwhile, down in my neck of the woods, American citizens often visit Juarez to get dental work done, because it’s so much cheaper than in the States. I’ve heard/read a number of reports here and there over the years, with pretty positive feedback.

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