The dehumanizing language and myths around immigration

By Amanda Marcotte
Thursday, August 5, 2010 13:46 EDT
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This week, I was doing some research on the surge in rhetoric about repealing the 14th amendment for the podcast,* and I have to admit that even I was astounded to hear how Fox News’ preferred nomenclature for people who immigrate here without going through the green card/citizenship channels is “illegals”. Just “illegals”. Not “illegal immigrants”, and of course not “undocumented immigrants” or “undocumented workers”.

The usual anti-racist reaction to the term “illegals” is to say, “Actions are illegal, people aren’t.” Which is a sane, accurate response. But I have to admit, the term “illegals” causes such a gut wrench in me that this response seems inadequate. It reminds me of another favorite term of conservatives: “illegitimate”. Both these terms convey an argument in them, and that argument is that if you aren’t blessed by the acceptance of married paternity** or U.S. citizenship, then you are cast out, not really a full human being. “Illegal” is a term straight out dystopian sci-fi, which loves to create dehumanizing terms to show how much a certain class of people have been pushed out of society. The Handmaid’s Tale had the term “Unwoman” to describe women who had no sexual or reproductive value to the patriarchy and were thrown out. In 1984, the “proles” were basically seen as animals. In Logan’s Run, people over 35 who don’t submit to execution willfully are called “runners”. I’m sure you can come up with a million examples. In science fiction, the process of casting a group of people out (or targeting them for extermination), and then giving them a dehumanizing nickname is one of the most common tropes.

“Illegals” sounds like a term straight out of this sci-fi tradition, except it’s happening in real life. And when it comes to the treatment of undocumented immigrants, this is a sci-fi style dystopia. Check out this story, for instance:

It started when Juana Villegas, an illegal immigrant from Mexico who was nine months pregnant, was pulled over by a police officer in a Nashville suburb for a routine traffic violation….

By the time Mrs. Villegas was released from the county jail six days later, she had gone through labor with a sheriff’s officer standing guard in her hospital room, where one of her feet was cuffed to the bed most of the time. County officers barred her from seeing or speaking with her husband.

After she was discharged from the hospital, Mrs. Villegas was separated from her nursing infant for two days and barred from taking a breast pump into the jail, her lawyer and a doctor familiar with the case said. Her breasts became infected, and the newborn boy developed jaundice, they said.

Her case became a centerpiece for an anti-shackling movement. But now she’s being deported.

Which should be a reminder that this “anchor babies” crap is just that, crap. The notion that there’s some widespread plot to have babies in the U.S. as anti-deportation insurance relies on an incorrect premise, namely that having a baby in the U.S.—as Villegas did—matters much to the authorities. As Robin Templeton notes in The Nation, a native born citizen can’t sponsor in family members until she turns 21. On the contrary, the trend tends to be more deporting American citizens to other countries! After all, when the parents get deported, the child has to go with them. The main thing the child gets from this is the right to return when she grows up. But if she’s deported as a small child, that isn’t exactly the easiest path. But to hear right wingers tell it—hell, the very phrase “anchor babies” implies it—have a baby here, and it’s gold from then on out. Not even slightly.

*Yes, the podcast is about reproductive justice, but I see this particular issue as an extremely important one from a reproductive rights standpoint. Establishing legal penalties to discourage child-bearing is anti-choice. E.J. Dionne was astounded that Lindsay Graham, who he characterizes as strongly “pro-life”, would describe women giving birth with the phrase “drop a baby”, but I’m not. Seriously, when feminists point out that anti-choicers think of women as brood mares, we’re not kidding. That racism only amplifies this shouldn’t be surprising.

But this goes to show why the term “pro-life” is inaccurate. Lindsay Graham is not pro-life. He’s anti-choice. In his mind, he has the right to decide when you give birth, ladies, not you. And whether or not your uterus is put into production is unsurprisingly dependent on the skin color and ethnicity of the likely baby you’ll produce. Tune in to the podcast to hear more in-depth analysis, with the clips carefully culled so you don’t have to wade through all the right wing muck yourself.

**Luckily, with “illegitimacy”, their squawking has almost no legal teeth to it. Unfortunately, this isn’t true when they label someone “illegal”.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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