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


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.

From an Indigenous perspective, when I studied my language, I found that there’s no such thing as “illegal.” We’re talking about people who have a place and have a history. “Illegals” don’t have a history. They don’t have a humanity.  In the Ndé perspective and world view, all humans have stories linking them to places, belonging and fluidity, or, put another way, relationships, adaptation and constant change.

What underlies the concept of “illegal”?

When we understand this discourse of the ‘illegal’ as a regurgitated and re-spun 21st century song of 19th century settler societies in a global context — from Israel, to Argentina, to South Africa, to Texas — we then can comprehend and engage migration, movement, and borders in the United States as an ongoing policy of exterminating Indigenous peoples, cultures, identities, and polities, and in displacing families and communities in order to appropriate Indigenous lands and resources on a hemispheric level. 

This has always involved policing and managing the displaced Indigenous labor, ‘biopower,’ within and across the arbitrary boundary line that is the Mexico-U.S. border, which bifurcates many Indigenous nations.  This deep inequity between the colonizers and the colonized has been ‘feeding’ the consumption levels of the dominating group for the last two centuries.  It is a formula of deep social, economic and political oppression, inherently violent and exploitative, is dependent upon and fuels adversarial, militarized systems of dependency and warfare.  In a nutshell, it will not and cannot sustain life.  Any system that feeds off of suffering, misery, and subjugation can only manufacture immense imbalances.  This kind of a system incrementally numbs members of society to violence and suffering. This is the system underlying the concept of the ‘illegal’; this is unacceptable on any terms. 

Are there concepts people are failing to think about when it comes to immigration and U.S. history?

Yes. At the level of the nation of the United States, it’s a grave concern how manipulative the mainstream popular media is in terms of conveying false history and false information to society.  False information and biased information which only projects the views of members in the dominant society — excluding Indigenous peoples — affects the minds, the attitudes, the perspectives and the behaviors of the general population.

Education, and the lack of, is a key issue. We must educate civil society about the importance of a shared history.  The United States is not founded on ‘one nation under God.’  That is absolutely a myth.  The United States is founded on a plurality of nations, which have a shared and continuing relationship — Indigenous, European and Settler. Also, the general population is being conditioned, socialized and trained to continue to perpetuate biased and ill-informed conceptions about the world’s actual conditions and lived situations of Indigenous families affected by the terrorizing and displacing factors associated with U.S. globalization.  It is a grave situation in the United States that the 19th century ideology of Social Darwinism, race, gender and class continue to project false historical views of the U.S. as a democracy. 

In reality, the U.S. operates through Manifest Destiny, rooted in a framework of domination.  To argue that ‘illegal’ is a term that is acceptable in mainstream news reportage is to be completely ahistorical to how these terminologies are rooted in historical evils of genocide, and that societies in Germany, Russia, Poland, France, Italy and Spain, among others, used these kinds of terms arrogantly in the process of normalizing genocide against Jews, gypsies, Catholics and persons deemed undesirable by the dominating groups. 

In the context of North America, where Indigenous peoples are continuing to increase in numbers and in consciousness about colonialism, the U.S. media is used as a tool of colonial elites to normalize genocidal consciousness as ‘rights’ of the nativist settler society.  This populations’ lens is often a skewed view of history where their ancestors are put on a pedestal as ‘winners’ of the wars against Indigenous peoples in the U.S. and Mexico — a country defined by its Indigenous peoples’ large presence. 

The concept of ‘illegal’ is a troubling residual of the notion that the ‘losers’ in the settler myth will always be ruled by the dominating group. It is this aspect of the settler-genocide complex that is deeply troubling and indicative that the U.S. raises generations upon generations who actually believe in their hearts that their government, and they as individuals, have a God-given right and authority to subjugate Indigenous peoples of Mexico.  It’s a destructive ideology at its root and it’s in a framework of domination.

Indigenous people are working on repudiating this framework of domination. However there’s very little about it publicized in mainstream or alternative media in the United States. There’s more written and heard about this framework of domination in Latin America, Canada, Asia, Africa and other European states. The global project to uncover this concept of domination works to repudiate every system that has derived power from the “Doctrine of Discovery,” a concept of Euro-American ownership over lands and resources, which affects the entire world. The concept at its most elemental level is that there is only one law system which matters, and that this dominant system upholds the rights of only particular peoples on the planet — their cultures, their worldviews, their religion — and it provides them an inherit birth right to perpetuate this one system globally.

What does the tension over the term “illegal” say about our feelings concerning nations and borders?

There is a hidden history of atrocity that these borders are based upon — conquering, subjugating, and if that doesn’t work, massacring people to get them out of the way of the local, regional and national elites’ objectives of expansion, such as the ongoing U.S. expansion into Mexico. However, these words ‘Mexico’ and ‘Mexican’, are so saturated with race and hate oriented discourse and ideology, that most people cannot distinguish the two terms from their naturalized sense of privilege and power over those they perceive to be from ‘Mexico’ and those they perceive to be ‘Mexican.’ It is frightening how powerfully saturated these two ideologies function across the U.S., and even in Canada. In fact, many Native Americans in the United States today don’t completely understand how they too have come to adopt the Anglo-American genocidal ideologies connected to “Othering” and hatred toward Indigenous peoples of Mexico.  Furthermore, many Native Americans are in constant turmoil about the obvious factors that Indigenous peoples of Mexico peoples are literally the blood descendants of their own ancestors as well. The entire U.S.-Mexico border region is one of the most diverse regions of indigeneity, and yet, as a result of the anti-Mexico/Mexican rhetoric and practices on the ground, most Native Americans vehemently deny any relation to Mexico — illustrating the depth of internalized anxiety and even anti-Indigenous hatred we have absorbed across generations. 

Nobody teaches Native Americans in the state-funded schools that the border is a construct of the global system of domination. American teachers don’t ever teach us that borders never existed until their ancestors occupied Indigenous peoples’ lands. The mainstream Anglo-American centric media never discusses alternative viewpoints of borders and walls from an Indigenous view of self-determination and anti-colonialism. However, for millennia up to the current period, our ancestors have worked out differences in very different ways. We did not commit mass extermination. We developed games and competitions and other forms to engage peoples with differences or conflicts so that we can share resources. There were never any walls in the Americas or the concept of ‘illegals.’  Walls were never used by the ancestors to create a continent of open-air prisons.

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?”

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