Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Word

An anonymous poster left a comment in one of my recent posts on immigration reform meta issues that has left me grappling for an answer. He/she raised a point that in some ways goes to the heart of the pro-immigrant movement's current inability to break the apparent right-wing stranglehold on the "immigration debate."

Having brought this issue to the national forefront for use as a possible electoral wedge, the restrictionist forces behind the immigration debate have had the opportunity frame the issue from the start in a way that has left the pro-immigrant movement struggling to find its voice in opposition to their policies. They quite frankly seem to be shouting us down at every turn.

They have managed to deflect criticisms of bigotry and racism by simply denying them and claiming instead their concern for "the rule of law", they brush off claims of xenophobia by stating opposition not to immigration, but rather "illegal" immigration.

This has left those of us in the pro-immigrant movement to try to come up with an effective counter. And it seems that thus far we have not been able to find the words or phrases that can neutralize their carefully crafted spin.

As my anonymous friend said:

The word for what abolitionists fought was "slavery." The word for what South Africans fought was "apartheid." Words for what the civil rights movement fought (and fights) include "racism" and "discrimination." Those words convey a clear, one-word enemy. A wrong that needs correction.

In one word, can you say what the wrong is that needs correction in our fight for immigrants?


We all agree that calling the problem "immigration," or the "immigration problem," or even "the illegal immigration problem" misses the point. There is a problem from our point of view, but we have not distilled it down to one word. We have not offered a substitute for the framing of this issue as the "immigration" issue.

Immigration is what people do to come here. The problem is really what we do to people who come here.

What is the word for that?

The word for what abolitionists fought was "slavery." The word for what South Africans fought was "apartheid." Words for what the civil rights movement fought (and fights) include "racism" and "discrimination." Those words convey a clear, one-word enemy. A wrong that needs correction.

In one word, can you say what the wrong is that needs correction in our fight for immigrants? What if we could invoke that word when we speak on this subject? Would it make it more clear where we are coming from?

To move in this direction, I have at least tried to stop referring to this issue as the "immigration" issue. I try to use the word "immigrant" and not "immigration" where possible when talking about the issue in general - because the "immigrant" word personalizes the people we are fighting for. I also use the phrase "immigration bureaucracy" when I'm talking about the problem. But if I'm really looking for a one-word enemy to call out by name, "immigration bureaucracy" fails the test by being two words, and the phrase is not as crisp or to the point as "slavery," "apartheid," "racism," or "discrimination."

I have heard our friends and allies use the words "isolationism," "xenophobia," or other words. Are these the words, then? Are these the one-word enemies?

If so, between the two, I'd pick "isolationism," because it describes the policy instead of just the emotion behind the policy. But I wonder whether it's exact enough. Lots of policies fit under the isolationism umbrella, however, many of them applicable to how we interact with people outside this country. We are fighting primarily for people in this country. Maybe "xenophobia" is the better of the two after all.

Is there an even more compelling noun that describes the policies we fight, on behalf of our immigrant neighbors? Is there one noun that truly isolates what it is that we are really against - or for?

While neither a noun nor what we are fighting, "welcoming" is a word that has been used with a measure of success, and the word still reverberates today. Just by using the word in public, I think we have pushed the boundaries of the debate in our direction. And we also gave people the courage (or at least a common vocabulary) to express with one voice what some in the city were already feeling and saying in other ways. But "welcoming" is not the enemy.

"Invisibility" is a word that I saw Univision use once, and that word conveys the idea of being physically present but nonetheless outside of society. Or to say it another way, with apologies to Shakespeare, "to be here but not to be - estar pero no ser - that is the question."

"Excommunication" is a word that seems to capture the spirit of unjust exclusion, and it has the added benefit of calling religion to mind, which is a frame that favors our position.

But I suspect that you think these words fall short. We may truly be at a lack for words, or more accurately, at a lack for the one word.

Please tell me I'm wrong. In one word, tell me what we're fighting. And then tell everyone.


As much as we all recoil at the notion of engaging in "framing" and "spin" when it comes to an issue that effect the lives of so many, sometimes when engaged in a war of words for hearts and minds, he who can present his case in the simplest and most easily digested terms holds the advantage .... perhaps it's time for us to search for "that one word"

7 comments:

Nightprowlkitty said...

I think your friend is on to something.

I'll be thinking about this ...

Sentido said...

The word "Compassion" is my favorite choice.

Compassion represents a value shared by most Americans, and shows the weakness in the anti-amnesty side. It also allows us to highlight the fact that immigrants are human beings who suffer with harsh immigration policies.

I am in this stuggle for compassion.

Man Eegee said...

I was cooking earlier, and the word "Dehumanizing" came to mind when I was thinking about this post and what they are doing to Others. I wish we didn't have to be so reactive in this business, but unfortunately that's the reality when calling out the atrocities committed by the current immigration system.

Everyday I hope that some story, some injustice, will finally jolt enough people to realize the horrific, and often racial-based crimes, this situation has spawned. I would love to spend time talking about the good/benefits, but enough propaganda has been unleashed to taint our stories. We have to level the playing field. I think we're getting better, but it will take more voices and hands in the real world to get the scales tipped.

Anonymous said...

I have actually been pondering this very idea. I am so glad you brought it up. Thank you for articulating this idea so thoughtfully. I have been reading a lot of anti-immigrant propaganda lately and the word that constantly comes to mind is scapegoat.

The anti-immigrant apologist blames legal/illegal immigration for everything from bridge collapses to decline in family values. Clearly the causes of these issues are due to far more complex economic and social influences than can be realistically attributed to a change in demographics over the last decade. Politically, it is much easier to deflect responsibility and galvanize support by blaming the problems on a population who is culturally isolated and largely politically unrepresented – such as immigrants.

The term scapegoat or scapegoating reflects the fact that the “enemy” has deviated from disciplined analysis of the social/economic problems and has chosen to irrationally blame the issue on another person or group.

For example, you could respond to the argument that illegal immigrants are responsible for the understaffing of the local ER by countering “Lets stop scapegoating this issue onto the easiest target – immigrants. The problem in the ER is caused by a much more complex …”

Anonymous said...

Don’t worry about this being a discussion about “spin.” This is an exercise in trying boil down to its bare essence what is so troubling and sinister about the anti-immigrant movement and summarize it in one word. Everyone has touched on a piece of it. To effectively scapegoat the immigrants for today’s problems, immigrants are dehumanized by being labeled as “illegal,” which conveniently relieves the anit-immigrant advocate of any responsibility to have human compassion. How often have we read the blog post which exclaims “Why should I care about them (dying in the desert, being separated from their families, detained without trail)…they are illegal…”

I interpret this is type of statement as “Why should I care about atrocities…they have no human rights…I have decided human rights do not apply to these legal/illegal immigrants.”

For me, the essence of the issue is the argument that human rights are conditional – that is the right to have a lawyer when arrested, the right to a trial, the right to have medical care while in prison, the right not to have your house broken into without a warrant are granted arbitrarily and are not the birthright of being human, in other words they are not “inaliable” rights.

In words that an anti-immigrant advocate might understand these are the rights and values that form the core of what makes America unique – as they are so fond of saying.

The reason we feel that anti-immigrants are “racist” (beyond the obvious racial slurs so frequently expressed in immigration related blogs) is because both racism and today’s anti-immigrant movement share the same underlying belief that not all humans are entitled to human rights. Ok, lets assume that the ant-immigrant genuinely does not differentiate between Europeans and Latinos – I say so what. If he/she still does not see anything wrong with warentless home invasions and arrests, lack of medical care or legal services while being detained, or any of the other gross violations of human rights, then the person continues to follow the beliefs the form the basis of racism and what makes much of the anti-immigrant movement sinister.

I am really struggling to capture this is a single word or phrase – I am going to think about this really hard on my commute home – and will post something if I have an epiphany ;)

Stentor said...

Excellent post. I got to the end of it and saw the headline on the previous post, which contains a word that I think fits the bill: "nativism." It's got that "ism" suffix like "racism" and "sexism," but to me it doesn't come off as an awkward PC neologism like "ageism" or "ableism" (not that I'm not against ageism and ableism, it's just that the words sound silly to people who aren't already on board).

janinsanfran said...

I think what we oppose is "nativism" and "xenophobia". I think the folks we are talking about are "migrants" and "neighbors."