Once again our national conversation is focused on immigration. Legislation like the American Dream and Promise Act as well as the Farm Workforce Modernization Act are gaining bipartisan traction. Unfortunately, the increased attention to their needs has also brought to the surface harmful attitudes and hurtful language.
Words matter. When we use negative words in regard to people, it becomes easier to use those words without thinking about the people to which they refer. It becomes easier to “other” individuals and entire groups of people. When someone uses racial slurs or harmful stereotypes, they aren’t considering the people behind the words and certainly not the divine nature inherent in each of those people.
We should be wary of negative depictions of immigrants, particularly when coming from partisan sources, but often even the common terms we use in speaking about immigration are negative. Words like “assimilation” imply that immigrants are required to leave their own traditions and cultures behind; while terms like “integration” imply taking the good from a person’s home culture and adding it to established U.S. communities.
Also, “alien” is the official term used to describe undocumented people in the United States Immigration and Nationality Act and is thus the term people use as well, sometimes using the term “illegal alien.”
Even if it is legally accurate, “alien” is not an ethical choice to use in reference to other human beings because it removes all connotations of humanity. Instead, we can say “undocumented person” or “noncitizen” or even “someone seeking citizenship status.”
It is much easier to put an “illegal alien” in a cage than an “undocumented child,” because we are picturing aliens not God’s children. Describing people in hostile terms quickly leads to treating people with open hostility.
Unfortunately, I witnessed this firsthand. In 2016, I was an English as a second language teacher at a high school in Wyoming. The day after the election, I was prepping before class when I heard commotion in the hallway. I went to see what was happening, and found a group of white kids chanting at Latino students on the floor above, “America hates Mexicans! America hates Mexicans!”
It was a terrible moment that I will never forget. As I had the chance to converse with my students that day, the main emotion they felt was fear. The rhetoric that was once only on the distant national stage had come directly into their high school and was shouted directly at them by people they knew.
When we talk about the immigration process, it is imperative that we remember the flesh and blood people who are directly impacted by that process. Our use of language can impede us from addressing the issues at hand. When offensive words are carelessly or unintentionally used in conversations, emotions rise and productive conversation ceases.
Even referring to the recent influx as a “wave” or “surge” reduces thousands of individuals to a negative force advancing like a natural disaster or army instead of individual souls seeking refuge. No wonder some Americans are concerned about protecting themselves from the “surge of illegal aliens.”
Instead, we can reframe to emphasize that we are a nation that maintains secure borders while also welcoming vulnerable children, families, and individuals fleeing danger. When we are compassionate in the way we speak of and treat all of God’s children, we will find room to discuss and compromise in order to create change that benefits us all.
The words and labels we use should matter to us all, simply because we should care for others the way we would want others to care for us.
Melody Barnett, Tooele, is the Shoulder to Shoulder Specialist at Mormon Women for Ethical Government.