When It Comes to Children and the Immigration Debate, Words Matter

The i-word, like other harmful language, makes the village that's supposed to be raising the child feel really unsafe.

By Mu00f3nica Novoa Aug 31, 2012

In the past month’s coverage of what U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services calls, "Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals" headlines nationwide have often included the i-word. From NPR: "Young Illegal Immigrants Seek To Avoid Deportation" to Fox News: "US launches new program allowing young illegal immigrants to stay" to the New York Times: "Illegal Immigrants Line Up by Thousands for Deportation Deferrals." Young DREAM Act and immigrant rights organizers have been raising their voices about how offensive and hurtful the "illegal" label is and how painful the language was for them growing up. That the i-word impacts children and young adults as they develop is enough reason for journalists to drop it. No child is "illegal" and no child should grow up thinking that it’s okay for anyone to be described that way. People that have shaped the campaign to Drop the I-Word and have shared their stories experience "illegal" as a racially-charged slur. In this fight, that means everything. The i-word, like other harmful language, makes the village that’s supposed to be raising the child feel really unsafe.

In 1984, I was in Mrs. Farmer’s kindergarten class at Menlo Avenue Elementary School in South LA, when papí came and pulled me out of Spanish hour. I had been put on the English as a Second Language track and he appreciated the thought, but as an educator, the Spanish hour wasn’t up to his pedagogical expectations. As a father, he didn’t like my sadness over being in the group excluded (in the same classroom) from story hour with the Disney read-along books that came with the little vinyl records that had the pretty chime sound to mark where the teacher was to turn the pages. And with the songs that everybody else but our little grupito was gonna learn.

Since that was a wrap, we took several trips to a Spanish bookstore three and a half hours away across the border in a mall in Tijuana so papí could get books to read to my brothers and I. My favorite book of all time, Saint-Exupéry’s El Principito, came from that bookstore. Tijuana is also where I got my fresh I’m-not-from-here gear for school: poofy dresses and shiny patent leather mary janes that were really code for, we just got here, that is the special occasion. So I had my Spanish cuadernos and lessons at home and my wardrobe was some days casual and on-trend, some days really awkward and Sunday-like. 

The next year in first grade I’d watch the kids with the Spanish lessons leave to another room in the morning, wondering about what fun they had, maybe singing "De Colores." They’d join our mixed first and second grade class again after lunch. As the days passed, this one kid must have started noticing differences in accents or maybe even all the poofy dresses. And something uglier must have happened outside of our classroom that brought the little brown-skinned second grader to welcome back the Spanish lesson kids with, "It’s the wetbacks!" My stomach sunk. A bunch of kids started laughing. I knew it wasn’t good. I knew it meant our Spanish and poofy dresses and patent leather were somehow becoming less-than to the other kids.

I don’t remember how the teacher handled it. After that ugly, confusing and humiliating word was uttered, I remember asking if I could just put my head down because I didn’t feel well. I went home early that day. It’s been years since I’d thought of that day. As I write, I think about how the little boy came to use that word and about how children now, are being hurt by the i-word.

A recent study, "How Today’s Immigration Enforcement Policies Impact Children, Families, and Communities," by the Center for American Progress looked at the impact of English-language media on child development. According to the report, children conflate the police with immigration, they feel sad about what it is to be an immigrant and they "also begin to view immigration as equivalent to illegal." That’s how children are making sense of the i-word. It’s heartbreaking.

We still need more research about the i-word’s impact on child development, but what we know is enough for journalists and everyday people to stop using the language. Over the weekend, New York Times reporter Julia Preston described 6-year-old Juan David Gonzalez as an "illegal border crosser," elsewhere in the article she manages to describe his situation well, without using the superfluous i-word. In the same important article, shedding a light on the plight of children having to go to immigration court without legal representation, she mentions the halt in deportations of "illegal immigrant students." #Fail.

The wide use of the i-word by writers across all types of media has amounted to its acceptance and normalization, but that’s not sufficient justification to keep it around. Children pick up on cues and the meanings attached to people and groups very early through verbal slurs, ethnic jokes they may overhear, or acts of hate/discrimination they may be exposed to. A child’s environment, media, and the people in it help develop the child’s values, beliefs, and understanding of where they and others fit in the world. Research on implicit bias, "hidden, or automatic, stereotypes and prejudices that circumvent conscious control," has shown that children can acquire negative associations with stigmatized groups based on media sources even when parents create an environment full of positive connections.

The images and language immigrant children and children of immigrants are exposed to are tied to a set of policies driven by enforcement, resulting in mass family separation. Journalists have to report these stories and the complexities of immigration in the United States, and while across the country people do not all agree on solutions, the least everyone can agree on, is that if this language is hurting how children see themselves and other people, surely we can use other language available to us.

Decades after Mrs. Farmer’s kindergarden class, I am still wearing poofy dresses and shiny shoes and reading The Little Prince in Spanish. But I’m not putting my head down or going home early. Discarding the i-word is some of our most important work, especially because it impacts how children see themselves and how they treat one another. It’s 2012, and in the U.S. kids are going through childhood afraid that their parents are in danger of being deported or taken away for being "illegal." Other children are internalizing the message that dreaming is not for them, or that classifying people and assigning different values is okay. Our future is at stake. This can’t continue.

Please sign the pledge to Drop the I-Word at droptheiword.com and if you see a news outlet use it, call them out on it. One more thing. At the Applied Research Center’s Facing Race Conference this November 15-17 in Baltimore, I’ll be moderating a panel on the language of bullying where we’ll hear from young people working on campaigns to defeat language that is anti-woman, anti-immigrant and anti-lgbt. Join us.