When I began my work with the Feerick Center for Social Justice, for the Unaccompanied Immigrant Children Project, the phenomenon of children arriving into the United States to reunite with their families was simply an increasing trend that evaded direct media attention. However, two weeks into my internship, a wave of news relating to the Unaccompanied Immigrant Children project started to come in as a rising amount of children coming to the United States unaccompanied increased significantly. Over time, the most recent unaccompanied immigrant children migration began to take on a name in the media – it was being called “the surge” and there was a news article, op-ed piece, and short interview about it from media outlets daily. With that began a battle to represent reality, with the truth somewhat hidden within a sea of water puns in which I find myself participating. Characterization in some way creates the character itself, somewhat similar but significantly different from the real thing. Words formed the core of the reality that was being portrayed. As an advocate and student, I feel compelled to caution readers and remind myself about the power of words.
Any keen observer could probably tell you that humans have limitations. We cannot be everywhere at once and cannot see everything at once. We have multiple senses but we tend to neglect them save for the one or two that our brains favor. In light of these physical limitations, we have built artificial tools to try and extend our grasp over reality. Words are probably one of the oldest of the artificial tools that continues to be so prominent. Their functionality comes from an assumed but unfounded understanding between people that when a word or utterance is used to convey an idea, then the use of the same word or utterance should convey the same or similar idea when used at some other time. Of course, it should not take anyone a semester’s worth of Contract Law to realize that the assumed understanding of which I speak is far from the reality (but maybe it does! And it took decades for contract law and formalists to even slightly admit that such bright-line rules as the “four corners” rule may be somewhat unhelpful). Words are not necessarily just benign mediums for communication and the conveyance of ideas. They can be more like cannonballs fired from one populace to another in an effort to beat down a certain type of reality into a targeted populace and wipe out other points of view in the process.
Furthermore, any student of social science could probably tell you that the most frequent losers of any cultural shift and war on words are the weakest groups. In a battle where Republicans and Democrats, Conservatives and Liberals, or Pro- and Anti- Interests Groups are drawing lines, it is quite likely that the group who has to suffer through the imposition of such pseudo-realities and descriptions is the migrants themselves. Their stories are filtered through interviews, their lives documented and narrated through snippets and the lenses of other people, their motivations are described by people who have more control over the expression of their own motivations. Yet again, I am reminded of the centrality of participation in a framework that respects humans as having universal, unassailable, and inalienable rights owed to them regardless of their age, nationality, or migration status.
Yet, as dangerous as the use of words have the potential to be, their functionality endures because we have not yet found an equally creative solution to the problem of communication. Without words and language, and some form of standardization of them, then this blog post would make even less sense to you and to me. I wuold be iroinaclly craeting pcitogarphs deiovd of maineng foryuor veiiwng dsiplaeusre.
Language and words are so central to the work that the Feerick Center does. My current assignment is to write a legal framework memo. As I plowed through dozens of cases in New York regarding Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, I became “familiar” with the stories of several children from China, India, Honduras, Ecuador, and Guatemala, simply because I could imagine that a set of images on my screen could represent certain ideas weaved into a story about someone else’s life. The dissemination of stories through written media is also important in human rights advocacy. In the Bringing Human Rights Home Network conference, the group discussed submitting shadow reports to the United Nations. Shadow reports are reports submitted by civil society instead of government on behalf of the country. They are often submitted in the context of reviews for human rights treaties to which a particular country is a signatory – the United States is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination, and the Convention against Torture. Because the reviewers do not get to experience firsthand the experiences of people from a particular country, the data in the shadow reports and the testimony of affected people themselves becomes the basis from which they understand that part of the world. Additionally, advocates in the United States use these same reports and the review process to be able to affect better human rights policy in the context of the review. In the practice of advocacy, the written word often becomes the world view by which decisions are made, because it is otherwise impossible to experience firsthand.
In the context of human rights advocacy, labels could serve to dehumanize a particular group, and make it less sensible that they should have universal and inalienable rights. The terms “illegal” or “illegal alien” are dehumanizing. Generally, talk of aliens is about imaginary beings from the sky, yet we preserve such terminology for humans like us simply because of their birth or origin outside of our arbitrarily defined borders. The word “illegal” attempts to connote the same notion of inhumanity. A human being cannot be illegal. We can commit acts outside the provision of the law, which may be illegal. Even if we did, we are guaranteed rights to protect us from abusive process. The term illegal seems superfluous upon inspection, and unhelpful as a description of reality. Thus, advocates often use the words “undocumented” or “irregular” immigrants to be more accurate.
The term “undocumented” is not just a replacement for the word “illegal” but it is an attempt to increase accuracy. The use of the term “undocumented” or “irregular” immigrant is only accurate in a way that highlights the responsibility of our governments to uphold the rights of all people. An irregular migrant could be a person who found farm work in the United States, yet that person could end up completely undefended by the laws as soon as a farm owner decides to fire them. In this example, the person did nothing “alien” or “illegal” at all, yet such labels might allow us to presume without further inquiry. The point is also not to replace one label with another but to make the story as accurate as possible. The terms “undocumented” and “irregular” are equally criticized. The word “undocumented” presumes that only some forms of documentation are valid. Most migrants carry passports and other documents from their country of origin, and may even have driver’s licenses and other equally valid documents in the country of residence, but the veracity of such a situation may be invalidated by the use of a single word. Similarly, though irregularities in residence occur because of uneven migration policies from state sovereigns, this does not make the migrant “irregular.”
Stories of undocumented immigrants assume often that they are a surge of people coming in to take a slice out of the “American pie.” What tends to be obfuscated is that the family unit is central to the life of a person, and that the American system does not have a proper way to reunify families. We accept the support of our immigrants and yet we are currently refusing to recognize their contributions by restricting their status, and consequently their ability to achieve more for themselves. Furthermore, we have restricted their ability to see their children. Our government can justify placing restrictions on access by the happenstance of how a person comes to be part of the United States because the modern nation-state system presumes a model of a person that is somehow more deserving of rights than others – the citizens.
Yet, regardless of our national origin or migration status, we are still humans and children that possess inalienable and universal rights.