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Writer claims illegally sneaking into the U.S. isn't a criminal act

Guest Opinion: Newspaper's language for crossers called demeaning

Tucson Citizen June 26, 2003

It's safe to say that one of the objectives that drive community organizations advocating immigrant and migrant workers rights is to point out how our society reproduces attitudes that demean, malign and ultimately harm the less-privileged. I refer to the June 11 Citizen article - "Taking body home is costly" - which describes a Guatemalan teen who died crossing the U.S. Mexican border as "illegal," rather than a more neutral term like "undocumented."

We admit that such linguistically conveyed attitudes often inadvertently are reproduced, which is why as conscientious individuals we often assume the role of educators.

Because our educational systems omit the history of the settlement of the U.S.-Mexico border region, most people are unfamiliar with the social and cultural context of migration.

Most people, for example, do not know that the land we currently inhabit belonged to Mexico until 155 years ago. Most people do not know that streams of migrants have moved along a north-south-north trajectory for several hundreds of years, and the economic forces that continue to drive these streams today will not be contained by a fence or wall.

Many do not know that undocumented immigrants pay taxes, including Social Security and Medicare, and as consumers, generate income and jobs for others. Understanding this context helps explain the failure of U.S. border policy.

The recent "Bring down the Walls" teach-in organized by a coalition of community groups illustrates the effort to educate and contextualize the immigration issue in a systematic manner. However, newspaper reporters and editors cannot claim ignorance and expect to get off that easy. Responsible journalists having done their homework should know that labels have been used historically to denigrate certain populations. Labels have served to dehumanize certain populations, to control them, and to justify any harm or misfortune that befalls them.

I don't know how many times I have heard reactions to an immigrant as: "... Well, they're coming over here illegally; that's what they get." The systematic attachment of the word "illegal" with immigrant criminalizes persons engaged in an activity that is not criminal.

In all fairness, why do you not refer to the industries that engage in illegal work force practices as "tax-evading companies." Have you considered in your reporting referring to the illegal means with which foreign investors in Latin America displace populations, forcing migrants north in search of work as "neo-illegal trade"? Is it not illegal to collect taxes from workers, then deny them the social benefits that taxpayers are entitled?

The failure to do so leads me to conclude that there are racist and exploitative intents behind the insistence to continue to criminalize and dehumanize a non-European derived immigrant population. African-Americans worked for years to eliminate the "N" word from our language, arguing that the attitudes conveyed by this word normalized racism and violence against blacks.

In March 2001, Native American women from 25 nations mobilized in support of a bill to remove the "S" word (squaw) from Idaho land places. They succeeded is making legislators understand that such a label served to objectify women of Native American heritage, resulting in their historic victimization.

Currently there is a nationwide movement to change attitudes toward immigrants by way of the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride ( In September, immigrant workers (please take note of the neutral term) and their allies will set out in buses from 10 major U.S. cities and cross the country. In October they will converge on Washington, D.C., to meet with members of Congress and then travel to New York City for a mass rally.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch ... I'm sad to say we appear to be stuck in a neocolonial backwater, in part thanks to irresponsible journalism. The Citizen's language contributes to attitudes that make possible racist-motivated, paramilitary violence along our border. Its language makes it OK for tax-evading employers to impose near-slave work force conditions on immigrants. Its language justifies and normalizes the mistreatment of migrant workers.

I suppose it would be too much to ask you to refrain from hysteria-ridden language let alone report that since 1970, undocumented immigrants have paid taxes in excess of $7 billion dollars. The federal government collects this money, which it uses to build more walls, militarize the border, and, yes, finance futile searches for weapons of mass destruction.

In this respect, I would further argue that the Citizen's reporting of stories of workers migrating to the United States is xenophobic at best, and at worse, racist.

Anna Ochoa O'Leary is an adjunct lecturer at the University of Arizona's Mexican American Studies and Research Center.