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What Words Should We Use to Describe Immigrants?


By Daniella Prieshoff, Common Dreams, Now Is the Time to Stop Using Dehumanizing Language to Describe Migrants

Last year, my client Susan called me to discuss her immigration case.

During our conversation she referenced the news that immigrants were being bused from the southern border to cities in the North, often under false promises, only to be left stranded in an unknown city.

In confusion and fear, Susan asked me: “Why do they hate us so much?”

While I couldn’t answer Susan’s question, her underlying concern highlights a startling escalation of public aggression against migrants over the past year.

Many outlets describe recent migration through the Americas as a “flood,” “influx,” “wave,” or “surge”—language that reinforces the notion that migration is akin to an imminent, uncontrollable, and destructive natural disaster.

There seems to be a growing “us” versus “them” mentality towards immigrants. This divisive language serves no purpose other than to divide our country, undermine the legal right to seek asylum in the United States, and cultivate a fear of the most vulnerable.

A clear example is showcased in recent media coverage of northbound migration across the U.S.-Mexico border. Many outlets describe recent migration through the Americas as a “flood,” “influx,” “wave,” or “surge”—language that reinforces the notion that migration is akin to an imminent, uncontrollable, and destructive natural disaster.

These descriptions are accompanied by sensational photographs and videos of long lines of brown and Black immigrants wading across the Rio Grande, crowding along the border wall, or boarding Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) vehicles to be transported to detention.

Woven into this framing is the near-constant use of the term “illegal” or “unlawful” to describe unauthorized crossings. As an advocate for immigrant survivors of domestic violence, sexual violence, and trafficking, I’m alarmed by the use of this language to describe a migrant’s attempt to survive.

Moreover, it’s often simply incorrect. A non-citizen who has a well-founded fear of persecution in the country from which they’ve fled has a legal right—protected under both U.S. and international law—to enter the United States to seek asylum.

When mainstream media wield the term “illegal” as though it were synonymous with “unauthorized,” they misinform readers and falsely paint asylum seekers as criminals.

Worse still, they encourage politicians who call immigrants themselves “illegals,” a deeply dehumanizing term. And the more dehumanizing language we use, the more likely it is that we will see immigrants as the “other” to justify cruel immigration policies.

We must retire the use of this inflammatory rhetoric, which distracts from real solutions that would actually serve survivors arriving at our borders.

Migrants expelled back to their home countries are at grave risk of severe harm or death at the hands of their persecutors. Those forced to remain in Mexico as they await entry to the United States are increasingly vulnerable to organized crime or abusive and dangerous conditions in detention.

And those who have no choice but to desperately navigate dangerous routes to the United States to avoid apprehension are increasingly dying by dehydration, falling from cliffs, and drowning in rivers.

The words we use in everyday discourse mean something—they can spell out life or death for those among us who are most vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. Now more than ever, I’d urge the public and the media to retire the use of sensationalizing, stigmatizing, and misleading imagery and rhetoric surrounding immigration.

Now is the time to apply accuracy and humanity in our depictions of migrants. Let’s not repeat the errors of our past.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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  1. Avatar

    As a person of Hispanic origin, this argument isn’t new to me. The reality is, the (White) people in power have always seen Hispanics (Latinos) as “the other”: dirty, lazy, stupid and criminal. My family has been in the U.S. for over a 100 years, and we hear this every day. The migrants are, unfortunately, just the latest to be swept up in anti-Hispanic hysteria. The language won’t change anytime soon. It’s too good for news hype and whipping up the bigotry vote.

    To the government, to be Hispanic/Latino/Mexican is to be illegal.

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      My dad used the wetback slur to disparage our Mexican neighbors in California. Not knowing what I meant, I called my Mexican friends — I was 6 — wetbacks. That didn’t go over well, to say the least.

      • Avatar

        I get it. I tell certain people (bigots) that my family has been here for over 100 years. Had a relative serve in the U.S Army during the Civil War. They don’t believe me, cause all Mexicans are illegal and lie, right? It will only change when people see reality and not what they need to believe to feel superior. And I don’t believe that will happen anytime soon.

  2. Avatar

    I once thought that the “border crisis” was just a fake Fox talking point. I’ve come to understand that it just isn’t. It is a real problem for people who live near the southern border. I’d disagree with Daniella on several points. The first is that any of the migrants are legitimate asylum seekers. They are all here for economic opportunity they believe exist in the United States. In every interview the prospective asylum seekers mention economic opportunity not political persecution which is the requirement for asylum. Contrary to some of the comments they aren’t Mexicans, they are from the northern triangle in central America and had to pass through at least one country before they hit the Rio Grande. I also disagree with the thesis that such people or the amounts of people should be referred euphemistically (though “illegal” is incorrect). There is a surge in migrants, though perhaps the focus should include solutions in the northern triangle countries. Most people would prefer to remain in their native countries, so the problems there must be unfathomable to most Americans. For those who tolerate abuse of the asylum law keep in mind the humanitarian crisis has real victims, those living on the border must expend resources they do not have for their food and shelter, those who make the journey often have children with them and live in atrocious conditions. It’s an untenable solution, putting a happy moniker on it won’t fix it.

  3. Avatar

    It’s a complex situation indeed. Every morning, we watch a few minutes of FOX News to see what the right are saying – we can only handle a few minutes because the FOX slant is so awful. Consistently, FOX refers to migrants as “illegals” and can’t wait to highlight stories of crimes committed by people who are immigrants. I agree that the numbers of immigrants coming to our Southern border can be problematic and that our system is overloaded. It would make sense for US, Mexico, and Canada to work together to create a better system.

  4. Avatar
    MJ Lisbeth

    Troy and Obstacle–The situation is indeed complex. I can’t say whether “all” immigrants come here mainly or solely for economic opportunity, but I don’t doubt that it’s on the minds of most immigrants, whatever their other motivations might be. After all, people who are fleeing violence–whether from family members, gangs or their country’s police or armed forces–are usually poor and know that economic opportunity will at least give them a better chance of living a peaceful, fulfilling life.

    That said, I can also agree with another of Troy’s points. I live in New York, which has long been a magnet for immigrants, legal and illegal. But we have also become the place where grandstanding governors ship their states’ “undesirables,” i.e., undocumented immigrants. It is indeed straining our resources though, contrary to what Faux would have you believe, they’re not responsible for a “crime wave.”

    Also, it’s probably true that most people would rather remain in their home countries. I don’t think that’s unique to today’s immigrants from the Northern Triangle countries; many people of my grandparents’ generation spoke wistfully of “the old country.” They came, and today’s immigrants, came because whatever they missed about wherever they came from, they knew there were no opportunities for them or their children. And in some cases they, too, were fleeing violence. So, yes, it would help to improve conditions in those countries. (After all, how many people move between, say, France and Germany or Sweden and Denmark in search of opportunity?) But I also think, like Ms. Prieshoff, that nobody in this country has any business in dehumanizing those who try to reach this country.

    • Avatar

      @MJ You are correct, we should be wary of using the world “all”, because there are always exceptions. That said, it is categorically true that persons from the northern triangle countries at least past through one other country that could have granted asylum. The only reason the apply for asylum in the U.S. (besides perceived economic benefit) would be if people have relatives in the U.S..
      That’s a good point about governors in TX and FL sending migrants to NYC… I fear if the border issues aren’t resolved it will keep TX and FL red, and wouldn’t it be nice if they weren’t?

  5. Avatar
    MJ Lisbeth

    Troy–Two of the four largest states in this country are not only “red:” they are dangerous for people like me. So I have some self-interest in seeing them–or Florida, anyway (I have relatives there) turn “blue.”

  6. Avatar

    Words to describe immigrants? How about taxpayers, hard workers, eventual citizens. All my grandparents were immigrants, all faced danger back where they came from, all faced discrimination once they got here. All worked hard, insisted their children worked hard in school and at after school jobs. their children became the generation that fought during World War II, then showed my generation how to be good citizens. they delighted in our successes and those of our children and grandchildren. Recent immigrants are from a different place, but they are following the same path. More power to them; I’m not sure I could do it. I have the advantage of my ancestors’ ambition and efforts, I cannot take credit for any of it.

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