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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.

Photo Credit: Rodrick Beiler


A few weeks ago, the Associated Press published a press release defending their use of the term “illegal immigrant.” The AP argued that, “The fact is that such people are here in violation of the law. It’s simply a legal reality. Violating any law is an illegal act.” Responding to the criticism that the term has a dehumanizing affect, the newswire service simply stated: “We don’t read the term this way.”

The New York Times released a similar defense in early October, stating that they are sticking with the term because, “It is clear and accurate; it gets its job done in two words — and there’s no implication that those described that way necessarily have committed a crime.”

Of course, many have argued the term “illegal” is dehumanizing and directly implies criminality unnecessarily so. “We call a person who crosses the street illegally a jaywalker, not an illegal walker,” stated Otto Santa Ana, a socio-linguist at UCLA who argues to use the term “unauthorized.” Criminalizing migrants also implies that they had a real choice in coming to the United States. This assumption is void of all context concerning the economy and labor, especially the fact that people are forced to come here for work because the United States has destroyed their economies.

Still, the debate over using the term “illegal immigrant” often lacks history as well as an analysis of nations, borders and laws all together. I spoke with Margo Tamez, an Indigenous writer, poet, scholar and human rights defender who also serves as a diplomat to the United Nations for the Lipan Apache Band of Texas. Tamez grew up in the traditional territory of Lipan Apache peoples along the Texas-Mexico border and in San Antonio. Tamez is currently on the faculty of Indigenous Studies at The University of British Columbia.

We spoke about the term “illegal,” the construction of nations and borders, and the Indigenous perspective on migration.

What do you think of the term “illegal immigrant”?

Assigning legality or illegality to human beings crossing the U.S.-Mexico border has always been hinged to the Anglo-American denial of the inherent belonging-ness and inextinguishable presence of Indigenous peoples on the lands that the colonizers’ ancestors invaded and occupied.  It is this central and most obvious power relationship between those who inherited the settler constitution and the Indigenous peoples across North America that is most often masked and obscured in the debates over the so-called ‘illegal.’  The entire debate needs a more relevant framework, as seen through Indigenous peoples’ lenses.  Without it, it is only the preacher preaching to the choir.  Before folks can conceptualize the broader dimensions of migration and immigration in the United States, we need to address the underlying ideologies and discourses that Anglo Americans use to recreate the Anglo as ‘native’ and the Indigenous as ‘Other-foreigner,’ which is the story of the settler society. 

And so this concept of the “illegal” — there’s no such thing as “illegal.” Illegal is connected to the concept of terrorist, the terrorist is connected to the concept of the enemy, the enemy is connected to the concept of just war. And all of these concepts were originally developed in the European and Spanish courts when they decided to go global. Muslims and Apaches were both being discussed in these court systems as enemies in the way of Christianity, in the way of the expansion of the global empire. And we still see this play out today. Apaches were one of the first people in the United States to be legally constructed as an enemy of the Spanish crown. The militarists and politicians constructing this entity we now call the United States absorbed this concept and then re-invented the concept of the ‘Apache’ in the Department of War.  Concurrently, the Spanish crown was inventing the concept of enemies in Africa and Asia; we have to understand what ‘illegal’ is functioning as at its root in a global context.