Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Re-defining 'illegal'

Quick! Complete this sentence: “I was really angry about those illegal _______ we saw the other night in California.”

If the word you chose was “fireworks,” you’re thinking like me. The combustibles have been banned across much of the Southern and Western United States due to extreme drought, and as wildfires throughout Summer 2011 have proved, a wayward spark from an illegal fireworks display can wipe out acres, like the fire in California which destroyed 44 acres of the San Bernardino National Forest this past August. This incident proves just how dangerous illegal fireworks can be, with the potential to destroy millions of acres of land or, what’s worse, to threaten the lives and livelihoods of millions across the West. Such a display, especially during the continued drought, is indeed a cause for anger and alarm.

If you answered “immigrant,” I have news for you: as many as 40 percent of undocumented immigrants entered the country legally. These are immigrants who entered with tourist, student, or employment-based visas and either overstayed or fell out of status due to some technicality. To refer to immigrants who entered the United States legally as “illegal immigrants” isn’t just inflammatory and dehumanizing, therefore: it is just plain incorrect.

The mischaracterization inherent in the I-Word is frustrating for immigrants and their advocates, including Danny Upton, an immigration attorney with the Justice for Our Neighbors (JFON), a program of the United Methodist Committee on Relief. “Every time I turn on the news,” Upton says, “I hear this word being used incorrectly by the news media. Sometimes ‘illegal’ is the least of what they call undocumented immigrants. Often they use words like ‘immigration felons’ and ‘criminal aliens’ to describe immigrants who have never committed a crime. What’s more, by using the word ‘illegal’ as a catchall phrase, we obscure real differences among categories of immigrants. We insinuate that all undocumented immigrants must be criminals, although millions of them have never committed—let alone been convicted of—a crime. To refer to all undocumented immigrants as ‘illegals’ and as ‘criminals’ is to lie.”

Unfortunately, many continue to abuse the I-Word in ways that promote division and violence. “The I-Word,” says Upton, “is at best inexact, and at worst willfully misleading.” He believes the word is intended to slander all undocumented immigrants, to instill fear in the voting public and to skew perceptions on the immigration issue. “The term ‘illegal immigrant,’” says Upton, “is not a legal term. It is a political term devised by the enemies of immigrants to frame the issue.”

What does this understanding mean for us as people of faith in Jesus Christ? It renews our commitment to Drop the I-Word—a word which degrades, dehumanizes, and denies the image of God in us all. It refocuses our lives on our call from God: Scripture demands compassion, justice and equity for the “resident alien” in our midst (cf. Exodus 22:21, 23:9; Deuteronomy 27:19; Zechariah 7:9-10; Jeremiah 7:5-7; Ezekiel 47:22 ; Proverbs 31:8-9; Matthew 25:35; Hebrews 13:2), and demands that they be treated equally under the law. It reminds us, further, of the greatest commandment, which we find in Matthew 22: 36-40. When asked, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

We are called to love our neighbors as ourselves. Rather than call them “illegal” or “criminals,” might we call them friends or brothers and sisters in Christ? What’s more, might we treat them as such?

To pledge to Drop the I-Word, click here.

No comments: