When the Associated Press announced that it would stop using the term “illegal” to describe undocumented immigrants, the power of that one word–to otherize and alienate millions of people and their communities–became plainly evident, through the mere fact of its official omission. While we observe this linguistic shift across the mainstream news media, some writers are reflecting on how the word “illegal” shaped the way they view and articulate their immigrant experience, as well as the role of language in fashioning the idioms of identity, assimilation, and the project of “Americanization.” Here, authors Andrew Lam, Helen Zia and Chitra Divakaruni give “illegal” a second reading.
My Americanization, A Love Story
When the Cold War ended and refugees from Vietnam fled en masse, western countries agreed on a cutoff date for hopeful entries. Up until then, anyone who escaped from communist Vietnam was given automatic political refugee status.
After July 2, 1989, however, most were deemed “economic” migrants — or what we refer to as “illegal” — and forcefully repatriated.
For one family, the sudden shift proved a cruel twist of fate.
They came in two boats. One – carrying the father and two sons — reached Hong Kong before the cutoff date. The other — with the mother and two more sons — came a few days after. They became “illegal immigrants” and were sent back to Vietnam.
That experience showed me how labels can hold out the promise of a future, or rob you of it. In America, the two boys grew to become an engineer and a doctor. The mother and her two sons in Vietnam, however, were forced to depend on relatives to get by. Neither boy went to school. It took them years to be reunited.
I think of them when I hear the word “illegal.” And I think of my own experience.
My family left Vietnam in the aftermath of war. We fled without passports, entering the Philippines illegally, without entry permits or visas. We later arrived in America.
My Americanization story is a love story, a success story. Had I not been granted a place here, I cannot think of where I might have ended up. Perhaps sent back to Vietnam to toil in the new economic zone set up for children of the bourgeois class.
I certainly would not be on a book tour around the United States, speaking of the Vietnamese American experience and the transformational power that comes with giving immigrants in this country a fighting chance.
All Criminals from Mars Report to the INS!
There’s a TV commercial I remember from my early childhood, more than half a century ago. It was a U.S. government public service announcement, of all things — a grainy, black-and-white cartoon ordering “aliens” to report their whereabouts or face dire consequences.
The faces of the cartoon figures were featureless, almost inhuman, making it clear that an alien had more in common with a Martian than an American. That PSA appeared every year for most of my childhood, popping up while I watched Star Trek or the Three Stooges — and I hated it.
There was something creepy, even shameful about the ad. Still, I didn’t connect the faceless cartoon aliens to my mother and father, who were immigrants from China.
I was born in the US and therefore an American, thanks to Wong Kim Ark’s lawsuit that was decided by the Supreme Court in 1898. But not my parents, they had not yet become naturalized Americans. It took me several years before I realized that the creepy “aliens” in the PSA were people like my mom and dad.
My parents never talked about this PSA with their children, nor did they ever tell us that they had once been threatened with deportation for overstaying their visas at the time of China’s Communist revolution. Because they had some American-born infants, including this writer, the INS allowed them to stay.
But the stain of being “aliens” never washed away, especially during the austerity years of the Reagan administration in the 1980s. Suddenly the issue of “aliens” turned even uglier. An extremist, histrionic wind stuck the word “illegal” onto the word “alien,” turning my Martian parents into something worse: “illegal aliens,” criminals from Mars.
For the last three decades, these dehumanizing words have been applied to people like my parents. It’s about time to call out this degrading language for what it is, and to return humanity back to those people, who, for whatever reason, are without documents. Now maybe some reasonable immigration policies can be made for human beings, not Martians.
The Words That Hurt Us
I came to this country in the 1970s as the holder of a coveted “green card,” the official name of which was (and still remains) the Alien Registration Card. For years, every time I looked at that card, it made me cringe. I felt strange and un-American, of a different species. It took years of living around kind, helpful Americans for that term to stop stinging.
Thus it is with pleasure that I read of the Associated Press’s decision to drop the term “illegal immigrant” from its stylebook.
The term had several technical problems associated with it. It was an oxymoron (since an immigrant is a person who has entered a country legally); it was inaccurate (an action is illegal, not a person). But most of all, it was a term rife with prejudice. It lumped thousands of people into a single, negative category and made it easy for us to judge them as some kind of parasite feeding stealthily upon America’s bounty. It allowed us, through two brief words, to de-humanize them.
The term “illegal immigrant” harmed the people to whom it was applied, yes, but it harmed the rest of us, too, by promoting attitudes of superiority — and racism. It is easy to turn such attitudes — once condoned by law — on anyone who looks different from us, by whom we feel threatened. It is easy to blame them for the troubles of the nation. Ultimately, this can only weaken America.
Andrew Lam is an editor with New America Media and the author of three books, Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora, East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres, and his latest, Birds of Paradise Lost. Helen Zia, author of Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People, is an American journalist and scholar who has covered Asian American communities and social and political movements. Chitra Divakaruni is an award-winning author, poet and teacher. Her books include The Mistress of Spices and Sister of My Heart.
This piece was originally published by New America Media.