This Saturday marks the 10th anniversary of International Migrants Day and the 20th anniversary of the passage of the U.N. Convention to Protect Migrant Workers. This is an important moment to reflect on the fact that today nearly one billion people are on the move across the world, and they are increasingly the target of hatred and violence. That’s why I am celebrating International Migrants Day by signing the pledge to respect immigrants everywhere by dropping the i-word and demanding that the media do the same.
Politicians and media alike use the word “illegal” to describe human beings without immigration status, sometimes shortening “illegal immigrant” to “illegals.” While this may seem trivial to some, the language of criminality plays an enormous part in moving people along the continuum from language to violent behavior. Calling people “illegal,” describing them in ways that make them less them human, recasts them as members of an undeserving sub-class that are owed less respect than what would otherwise be acceptable for “regular” human beings.
We know that, leading up to and during World War II, language was a powerful factor in moving an ideological and genocidal agenda. The language of elimination of an entire race—described as the “final solution”—was used frequently and without apology. In the decades following the Holocaust, this kind of language was widely condemned and deemed unacceptable. And yet, as recently as this year, we have seen genocidal language directed at migrants worldwide.
Consider the recent statement of the deputy mayor of the Italian city of Treviso in relation to the issue of the undocumented Roma migrants: “I want a revolution against gypsies … I want to eliminate all the gypsy children who steal.”
Or consider the United States, where anti-immigrant extremists have painted a picture of all-out warfare that threatens the very idea of nationhood. Conservative commentator Pat Buchanan claimed on MSNBC that the influx of undocumented immigrants into the U.S. is “an invasion, the greatest invasion in history … the last scene is the deconstruction of the nations.”
The leap from fear mongering to violence—vigilantism or state-sponsored—is surprisingly short. The imagery of war and warfare helps to up the ante. After all, if this is really war, we must protect “our own.”
Across the world, violence against immigrants is on the rise. The Libyan government, according to a report just released by Amnesty International, has been torturing undocumented African migrants through electric shock and beating, even shooting at fishing boats because they may have held “illegal immigrants.”
In Sweden, shortly after the far right, anti-immigrant party won a place in Parliament for the first time, police arrested a 38-year-old man suspected of carrying out a dozen shootings, nearly all immigrants, where one person died and eight were wounded.
In the United States, the FBI has documented a dramatic increase in reported hate crimes against Latinos, from 595 in 2003 to 888 in 2007. Along the U.S.-Mexico border, armed vigilante groups who claim to be “dedicated to the defense of American patriotism” are on the rise, and the New York Times has consistently reported on the number of deaths that occur in detention centers due to callous disregard for medical needs of immigrant detainees.
One of our challenges in fighting the criminalization of migrants is that the most extreme voices in the dehumanization of immigrants have been legitimized by the media and politicians as representatives of the “other side” of the immigration debate. In spite of numerous reports from the Anti-Defamation League, the Southern Poverty Law Center and Media Matters that call out the connections to clear racist and xenophobic ideologies, groups such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform are routinely called on to give testimony in Congress or provide comments for news stories. Their racism skews the bounds of reasonable discourse about immigrants—and as a result sets extreme new bounds for reasonable policy, too.
As economic insecurity heightens, Americans and Europeans who would otherwise support rational and human polices on migration—polls consistently find vast majorities in this camp—are drawn into fear. It becomes socially acceptable, and even personally necessary, to scapegoat or become violent towards someone else—namely, immigrants.
In this polarized environment, some policy makers have fueled the frenzy by embracing restrictionist policies that further criminalize immigrants. The success in exploiting fear in an increasingly fragile economic environment has led to fringe political parties across the world coming into power for the first time.
The Guardian has documented the rise of these fringe parties in Europe to “such a degree that they are now in the position of propping up governments.” Parties that espouse anti-Muslim views have gained ground, and state-sponsored policies that ban core practices of Islam (such as burkhas in France or minarets in Switzerland) are increasingly common. In the U.S., politicians who hold extreme anti-immigrant views are now in positions of power in the House of Representatives and are expected to introduce unprecedentedly regressive legislation, including an attempt to amend the Constitution’s birthright-citizenship clause.
Some are also pushing back, recognizing the real danger we face of escalating violence and polarization. In early 2010, Pope Benedict XVI, reacting to the riots in Southern Italy in which African immigrants were attacked, reminded people that, “An immigrant is a human being, different in background, culture and tradition, but a person to be respected, and possessing rights and duties. …Violence must never be a way to resolve differences.”
We need to push back more—and take the hate out of the debate. It’s time to stop using racist, fear-mongering language that promotes and even condones violence. It’s time to create space for a rational, thoughtful and humane discussion around migration and immigration policies that support the economic and moral need for managed flows of people. Join me in celebrating International Migrants Day by taking a simple but significant stand for humanity. Take the pledge and Drop the I-Word.