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How The Media's Recent Defense of Using "Illegal Immigrant" Misses an Entire History

Margo Tamez, an Indigenous scholar and activist, shares her Indigenous perspective on the term.

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How about our feelings concerning laws?

Let’s back up a bit. Indigenous people are working on a key project. The United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is a clearly articulated declaration endorsed by the majority of states in the U.N., including the United States. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is based upon key covenants; it’s not an aspiration, it is international law. It’s based on key human rights agreements. The goal and the aim of Indigenous peoples and peoples working through member states is that the UNDRIP will become implemented on the ground beyond articulated principles and will become common practice.

All of the member states of the U.N. are also signatories of the Covenant on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which is a key covenant that could be a framework for addressing the concerns of Indigenous migrants, workers and the State. However, when the State does not uphold its duties and obligations to protect the human rights of migrants and their families while employed in the United States and making key contributions to society and the economy, then the State party must come under the scrutiny of the UN CERD review process.  In fact, the United States will be coming under its periodic review in 2013. This is an important opportunity for community organizations and advocacy groups. Many will participate in producing shadow reports on the contemporary situation and status of workers, displaced workers, migrants, immigrants and their rights within the country.  The CERD review will determine the challenges and problems the United States is facing in upholding its obligations and duties to carry out the treaty.

So there’s a severe gap in the reality of the rule of law, meaning those laws that have been constructed by the member states of the United Nations, which are the rules and procedures they agreed through treaties and covenants to abide by. If we look at all the work being done at the U.N. on supporting truth commissions and the reports on the severe issue of impunity, we can see that the member states are not upholding there agreements, and they’re not willing to weigh down on other states who aren’t following the rules.

Journalists argue they need to be concise -- that “illegal immigrant gets the job done in two words.” Is concision possible with such a complex matter?

Being concise is a euphemism for shutting down and silencing the alternative, diverse, and intelligent opinions from the peoples of the United States — the ones whose knowledge truly matters.  Silencing the plurality and diversity of knowledge from Indigenous peoples is a tactic to shut down education among the masses that there is a very different ‘America’ right outside your doorway.  The Indigenous America outside your door already preexisted and predated the United States, and did not get erased or conquered.  It got colonized and that is a very different concern.

While the media’s impulse is to reduce the voice of difference, and reduce experiences that do not official register as ‘norm,’ and to reduce testimony and knowledge related to underlying truths, the Indigenous impulse is to endure and persist. Indigenous media shows emphatically that Indigenous peoples’ find it is infuriating to be reduced down to the sound bite.  

I have a brother-in-law, he’s an attorney, and runs a family-built mega business, which hires many migrant workers from Mexico.  He’s not too involved with the activism our family engages in, though he’s interested and asks questions about this work from time to time. Over dinner conversation, he’ll ask me a complicated question about the issues on the border, and out of respect for him, I try to give him an educated answer, an intelligent answer. I sense his sense of frustration, even boredom. Later on I’ll hear from my sister that he gets annoyed with the answer, the length, the time involved, the history and context oriented form of providing him an intelligent answer. The answer displaces white males, private property, and national law from the center, replacing it with an Indigenous worldview of land, self-determination and collective rights. At the same time, he doesn’t understand where this unfamiliar narrative is coming from, and he doesn’t feel comfortable being outside of something so important yet at the same time so time consuming. The effort to listen takes too long — too many words, the story takes too long. There is no neat ending, no white hero, no neat resolution.  So, the next time I see him, and I sense a question coming, I know better and say, “You want the short version or the long version?”