The Casual Violence That Dehumanizing Language Breeds

Josu00e9 Gutiu00e9rrez Guzmu00e5n is the most recent person to suffer out-of-scale violence from border agents, but he won't be the last if we continue robbing migrants of their humanity.

By Mu00f3nica Novoa Apr 20, 2011

Tragically we can’t go very long without hearing about an overzealous officer hurting a young person of color.

Asraa Mustufa has been telling Colorlines readers about the story of José Gutiérrez Guzmån, a man from southern California who was Tased into a coma at the Arizona border in late March, nine days after having been deported to a country that was not his home. A longtime Los Angeles resident, he was attempting to renter the country to reunite with his family when border agents opened fire on him. Immigration officials still planned to deport Gutiérrez, while in the coma their violence created. But after rallies outside the Arizona hospital, his lawyer has obtained an injunction and he is reportedly to be moved to an L.A. hospital while a lawsuit unfolds.

But there’s a larger story here than Gutiérrez’s case. This is not the first time border patrol agents have been under scrutiny for their excessive use of Tasers. Just last May, for instance, Anastasio Hernandez Rojas was beaten and stun-gunned to death by border patrol in San Diego.

How did we get here? Immigrants are dehumanized every day in the nation’s discourse with the slur "illegals." It should be no surprise that they are treated with inhuman, out-of-proportion violence from law enforcement as well.

The i-word slur is so widespread that even writers and broadcasters in media outlets that we rely upon for otherwise great reporting casually reinforce it with supposedly neutral versions, like the phrase "illegal immigrants." A friend and I talked recently about how in choosing the i-word over other accurate and non-dehumanizing terms, reporters are immediately denying a person’s due process. So among the many other problems with this label, it allows the user to act as judge and jury.

And when dehumanizing, summary convictions of people are normalized, the violence that follows seems normal, too. On the first day of spring this year, the same day that José Gutiérrez Guzmån was deported, border patrol shot and killed a visibly unarmed 19-year-old man. The murder happened in broad daylight in the border town of Douglas, Ariz. Carlos La Madrid, a U.S. citizen, leaves behind a mother, sister, wife and friends and family, all who are looking for answers as they mourn in disbelief.

As Border Action Network’s Jennifer Allen said of the killing, "There’s no reason to shoot a 19-year-old, U.S. citizen in the back as he’s climbing over a wall into Mexico." No reason except the assumption that he’s an inhuman "illegal." The F.B.I. is now handling the investigation, and according to local news station KOLD-13, they are not commenting on the case and neither is border patrol.

La Madrid’s uncle, Javier Teran, offered the best explanation: "[The border patrol agent] thought my nephew was an ‘illegal,’ not a U.S. citizen or somebody else, like before. [He thought] it was an illegal and ‘I can get away with it.’ "

Fresh in our historical memory are the stories of other young men killed by border patrol from no damned reason. Last October, border patrol shot and killed Juan Mendez, an 18-year-old from Eagle Pass, Texas. And before that, in June 2010, a border agent at the El Paso-Juarez Port of entry shot into Mexico and murdered Sergio Adrian Hernandez Guereca. He was 15 years old.

Each of these men, pictured below, are human beings–they are sons and fathers and brothers and nephews and lovers. They are not crimes. 

Abuses at the border have been happening for a long time with no relief in sight. In 2008, the Phoenix organization No More Deaths released a report chronicling over 400 individual accounts of border patrol abuses, along with analysis and policy recommendations. 

President Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano can choose to condemn these abuses and murders at the border at the hands of their officers, but they have not done that. Their silence is understood loud and clear. You do not have to be silent as well, however. Find out about our campaign to Drop the I-Word, sign the pledge to reject the slur yourself, and ask your friends and family to do the same.

This post has been altered since publication.

Lee este artículo en español: "La Violencia Casual que Deshumaniza el Lenguaje Racial"