How Has the Term ‘Illegals’ Affected Your Life? [Reader Forum]

Colorlines readers talk about Gabriel Thompson's investigative work into the history (and purpose) of the i-word.

By Channing Kennedy Sep 19, 2011

Last week, we were proud to publish a longform piece by investigative journalist Gabriel Thompson, "How the Right Made Racism Sound Fair — And Shaped Immigration Politics." In it, Thompson digs deep into the decades-long history of the term ‘illegals’ and its related phrases, showing how it’s been used to create false fear and to capitalize on that fear.

It’s a great, informative read that kicked off a spirited discussion from the Colorlines community; Drop The I-Word campaign coordinator Mónica Novoa joins the conversation as well, bringing valuable context and dropping links like Leon Spinks. Here’s a sample of what you had to say about it.

Brent Snavely:

Three-Fifths Compromise; The Naturalization Act of 1790; Indian Removal Act of 1830; The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882; and, The Alien Contract Labor Law of 1885, et. al. I do not see much that is "new" here.

crazygemini12 brings the sarcasm:

As a descendant of Native Americans, we have got to get these white people that don’t look like us or speak our language off our land. And the crime? I mean-who ARE these people to empty their prisons and send the prisoners over here? If they didn’t want them there, why do they think we’d want them here?! They didn’t even ASK us if it was OK! Talking all that "seeking a better life" nonsense. What a load of crap! They’re just here to steal our resources for free! We need to protect our land from these people bringing their diseased blankets and raping our women. If we don’t act now there will be more of them than there are of us and then what will we do?

… and then talks money, in response to another commenter:

[…] For the past decade, the U.S. has been at war. War costs a helluva lot of money. That money comes out of taxpayers’ pockets. In addition, it would behoove you to investigate the world’s economy, which is also in crisis. The economies of other nations have an effect on our own and vice versa. Entire countries (withOUT the illegal immigrant problems you think are [key] here) are declaring bankruptcy. When one goes down, we all suffer in some way. As for those NOT paying taxes: two of the largest groups NOT paying taxes tend to be large corporations and American parents. When Democrats propose a raise in minimum wage, the corporations balk at the "expense", despite the rich’s constant tax breaks. As for parents: People with children receive a myriad of tax breaks (more if they’re married) despite the fact tax dollars educate children, producing a negative sum game. […]

The welfare issue is an issue for sure, but it isn’t an immigrant issue because there are PLENTY of citizens on welfare. Welfare is another of those issues with staggering complexity. As someone who worked for Section 8 here in Chicago (oh, the stories I could tell but won’t), I can tell you there’s not a simple solution to the problem of how to deal with economic inequalities. All I can be sure of is that we can’t waste time pointing fingers and scapegoating because that takes time away from actually trying to provide solutions. The infighting on this feed (not that you and I are fighting, my dear) is a good example of this. We can’t be on opposite sides of the line: we must work together to find solutions. It can’t be "us versus them"; it has to be "all of us".

Marcos discusses the term’s racialized nature:

Although undocumented immigrants can be of any race, the use of "illegal" as a racial slur to refer specifically to brown-skinned Latinos is well established. Native born US citizens with brown skin and Spanish last names are often called "illegals" as a racial slur; I have yet to hear anybody call a white person an "illegal". I would say that I hear someone use the word "illegals" to refer to brown people without even actually knowing their immigration status on a daily basis. So it’s more than fair to say it’s become a racialized word and that it is becoming, if it hasn’t already become, a racial slur against mestizo and mulato Latin Americans.

Michael points out how the term serves to distract:

U.S. foreign and trade policies have a lot to do with the high rate of illegal immigration from Latin America, especially Mexico, though recently illegal border crossings have dropped substantially. If you don’t like "illegal," then do something to stop illegal U.S. interventions abroad, the strangling of already weak economies, the crushing of popular social movements agitating for desperately needed social change, the high-repression, low-wage policies that induce millions of people to come to the U.S. illegally in the first place.

I agree, this is a right versus wrong issue. Unfortunately, people like [fellow commenter] Mr. Jones speak very selectively about legality, ignoring the massive illegal behavior of the U.S. government, for which they share responsibility. The World Court convicted the U.S. government of international terrorism for its policy in Nicaragua. We never paid a penny of the $17 billion in reparations we were ordered to pay. Defying court orders is ILLEGAL. And the ruined country our policy left behind is directly related to the presence of illegal Nicaraguan immigrants in the U.S.

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