Actions may be legal, or they may be illegal. Whether they are moral or not is a totally separate question. (When the law is wrong, lawbreaking is the right thing to do.) But while actions may be illegal, people are not. A person’s existence and life and worth aren’t reducible to the papers that they carry or the legal or political status that they have. If you’re talking about people that way, you ought to consider talking about them a different way. Referring to women or men or children or human beings by their legal status alone is dehumanizing and insulting to them; it is also coarsening and brutalizing for the person doing the referring. It encourages the worst in those who do it, and it justifies inhuman reactions toward those that it is done to. No human being is “illegal.”
Here’s a recent letter I wrote to the OA News in reply to the unpleasant
Good Morning I got a couple weeks ago from their Oct. 10, 2011 isssue. When I picked up the morning paper, I was greeted with the following big-bold-black-letter headline on the top story:
ILLEGALS FEAR KIDS WILL BE STRANDED.
Well, that’s a fine how-do-you-do. The headline, racist-ass slur and all, was actually what the OA News chose to introduce this really heartbreaking AP story, which is actually a very important story about real human beings and their families, not bullshit ethno-legal statuses — and the human suffering that the state government’s recent apartheid bill is causing — the kind of suffering that dehumanizing and authoritarian slurs like
Illegals serves systematically to distract from and obliterate. Anyway, I would have put this up sooner, but publishing schedules at the Opelika-Auburn News Opinion/Letters page seem to have been a bit chaotic over the past few weeks; however, my guess is that at this point they are not likely to include the letter. They did include another letter on the same topic.
10 October 2011
Editor, Opelika-Auburn News:
I read the top story in Monday’s OA News (“Illegals fear kids will be stranded,” 10/10/2011) with mixed feelings. I’m glad you chose to highlight this important, heart-breaking issue. No child should be separated from her parents over a piece of government paper, and no parent should have to live with the fear that any traffic stop or chance encounter with police could separate them from their children. Political borders are not worth tearing apart families or throwing children into terrifying emergencies. When Scott Beason says “such concerns weren’t raised when legislators were considering the bill,” I’m sure he is telling the truth – I don’t doubt he never stopped to ask how his sadistic “Papers, Please” law might affect undocumented families, or their children. And I don’t doubt his colleagues in the state-house didn’t think to mention it to him. But their short-sightedness is a shame on them. It’s not a reason to act as if the problem does not exist.
However, while I think this is an vital issue for the OA News to discuss, I was saddened, and embarrassed, to see the top headline in my hometown paper refer to human beings with the dehumanizing and racially-charged slur “Illegals.” Actions may be legal or illegal, but people are not. Call them immigrants, undocumented families, parents without papers, our coworkers and neighbors. But they are not “illegals.” The i-word reduces human beings to their political status, and silences the real issues in the debate – whether existing immigration laws are even remotely fair or just in the first place. The i-word is offensive and divisive, and doesn’t belong in a newspaper headline any more than the n-word or any other ethnic slur. No human being is illegal.
Charles W. Johnson
I wasn’t able to get it in the original draft of the letter — because of a 300-word limit — but now that I’m under no such constraints of length, I will also add that I’d hoped to close off the letter with a rhetorical question, wondering whether the OA News would publish a story with a headline describing the SNCC students as
Illegal Customers or Harriet Tubman as an
If you’re interested in asking them the same, or letting them know how you feel about racist-ass slurs in headlines, you can get in touch with the editor at:
Letters to the Editor
P.O. Drawer 2208
Opelika, AL 36803