POLITICS

What the Term “Illegal” Means for Undocumented Immigrants

The term is typically used to refer to a whole person, not a person's legal status, and so it therefore implies that the person themselves is not a viable human being, thus not entitled to any human rights protections.

The word "illegal" has become a buzzword in modern immigration discourse, a common way of describing someone who has crossed the border into America without papers.

The term is typically used to refer to a whole person, not a person's legal status, and so it therefore implies that the person themselves is not a viable human being, thus not entitled to any human rights protections.

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The term "illegal immigrant" was first coined to describe Jews fleeing during the second world war. "How can a human being be illegal?" asked the writer and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, pinpointing the contradictory nature of the term. In 2017, journalist Maria Hinojosa riffed on Elie Wiesel's description of illegality, stating that "Because once you label a people 'illegal,' that is exactly what the Nazis did to Jews.' You do not label a people 'illegal.' They have committed an illegal act. They are immigrants who crossed illegally. But they are not an illegal people."

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Being labeled as illegal has severe consequences for those who fall under the term's shadow. An "illegal" immigrant cannot demand raises or report human rights abuses at work. Undocumented immigrants face the double pressure of fear of being sent back to where they came from and fear of being 'found out' in their new nation.

The majority of migrants labeled as "illegal" are actually doing work for low wages, and provide services while demanding nothing in return. In practice, their work is similar to mass incarceration, which keeps whole segments of the population out of sight while they perform unpaid labor and are unable to exercise their civil rights.

In the novel Dear America: Notes from an Undocumented Citizen, the Filipino journalist Jose Antonio Vargas outlines the unique stresses and pains that come with living as an undocumented civilian. "This book is about homelessness," he writes, "not in a traditional sense, but the unsettled, unmoored psychological state that undocumented immigrants like me find ourselves in. This book is about lying and being forced to lie to get by; about passing as an American and as a contributing citizen; about families, keeping them together and having to make new ones when you can't. This book is about constantly hiding from the government and, in the process, hiding from ourselves."

Vargas, a successful reporter, came to the US at eight and discovered he was undocumented at age 11; what followed were decades of trying to hide his status until he finally spoke out and became one of the most famous undocumented citizens in the public eye.

Image via Mother Jones

Every single migrant's story is different, and for many people, speaking out is not an option. Many people have to work, to support families or relatives at home, and cannot risk "coming out" as illegal like Vargas.

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Studies have found that undocumented immigrants—especially those of Latinx descent—are especially at risk of mental health disorders due to the unique combination of trauma and secrecy that often plagues their journeys to the United States. As Warsan Shire writes in her stunning poem Home, "how do the words / the dirty looks / roll off your backs / maybe because the blow is softer / than a limb torn off." Although living in an America that calls them "illegal" is preferable to remaining in their native countries, many migrants have written about the psychological impacts of living in constant fear, and of being "found out" on American soil.

Bigotry and xenophobia may be better alternatives than the violence that many migrants faced at home, but defining groups of people as "illegal" is a convenient way to strip human beings of their humanity, the very thing that lies at the heart of the United Nations' Declaration of Human Rights. Peoples who are in flux are especially at risk of getting lost, as official laws refuse to help them; outside of the light of official regulations, people are quite literally disappearing, slipping into the cracks between policy and legal protection.

Image via thoughtco.com

Keeping people in the subterranean realms of the criminal justice system or beneath the umbrella term of "illegal," is the result of a cycle that relies on many elements that work to perpetuate it. Xenophobia is one of the important steps that keep this cycle in place. A pervasive distrust of foreigners is a way of creating divisions and continuing cycles of disadvantage. Human rights abuses happen when human beings become faceless, anonymous, and stripped of recognition and legal protection. Rejecting and silencing people because they are so-called "illegal" even if it is not consciously spoken, is a way of selectively subjugating certain voices.

Of course, America has never been open to all migrants. This nation has a history of drawing non-white migrants to it when it needed labor—such as with the Chinese in California during the building of the railroads in the 19th century—and sending them home via acts like the Chinese Exclusion Act once the work was completed. This nation has a history of silencing certain groups, making it so they have no chance to even take a crack at the American dream.

Everyone is allowed to use language to express their beliefs—that's one foundational premise of the American experiment that everyone can agree on (though of course in practice it gets more complicated). Language is always political, and the word "illegal" carries powerful implications that it should at least be understood, not thrown around as an abstract umbrella term.


Eden Arielle Gordon is a writer and musician from New York City. Follow her on Twitter at @edenarielmusic.

POLITICS

3 Ways Presidential Power Can Be Abused

It turns out national emergencies are very subjective.

The Trump administration has laid bare many of the failings of our government.

All three government branches are privy to partisanship. Our checks and balances may not necessarily work as intended. But most alarmingly, American presidential power might be far less defined than most people realized.

Historically, dictatorial regimes have utilized "national emergencies" as excuses to consolidate and reinforce power. We've seen this playbook employed by Erdogan in Turkey and by Duterte in the Philippines. But could this happen in America? The answer is murky. In fact, national emergencies are murky territory in general, the main problem being that most of the terminology involved is broad and ill-defined.

In a video posted by The Atlantic, Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, explains, "There's no legal definition of emergency, no requirement that congress ratify the decision, and no judicial review." In other words, the decision to declare a national emergency are almost entirely up to a president's personal discretion. Normally, we assume that our elected officials have the best interest of the people in mind, and would not declare a national emergency for personal or partisan political gain. But considering Donald Trump's noted praise of dictators like Erdogan, coupled with his extreme penchant for partisanship, we can no longer simply rely on the president's best judgment.

The question then becomes, "If the president declares a national emergency now, what powers can he abuse?"

1. The Power to Take Over Wire Communication

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During a national emergency, the president has the power to shut down or take over radio stations. Assuming there's a threat of war (which, again, can be determined at the president's own discretion), that power expands to any and all wire communications. This executive power was last used during WWII, before most people utilized daily wire communication in any meaningful way beyond the occasional phone call.

Today, given the vagueness and broad applications of "wire communications," declaring a national emergency could allow the president to control Internet traffic in the US. This could include shutting down websites he didn't like, blocking emails to and from dissidents, and altering search results to only display pre-approved propaganda. Doing so would be akin to removing free speech from the Internet, and during a national emergency that would be completely within the president's power.

2. Sanctioning American Citizens

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Imagine going to work, only to discover you've been fired because you can no longer legally be employed. You go back to your apartment and find out you're being evicted. So you go to the bank to take out cash for a hotel, but your funds are frozen. Turns out you're on a list of US citizens suspected of providing support to foreign threats. That's the potential reality of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA).

This act allows the president to declare a national emergency to "deal with any unusual extraordinary threat" that "has its source in whole or substantial part outside the United States." It gives the president the power to freeze assets and block transactions where a foreign nation or foreign national might have a vested interest. George W. Bush used this after 9/11 to sanction those being investigated (sometimes wrongly) of helping terrorists. Were a president to declare "illegal immigrants" a national emergency, the implications could be disastrous.

3. Deploying the Military Within the US

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The idea of armed soldiers marching down your city street to hunt down civilians might sound like something out of a dystopian novel. But during a national emergency, it could be an American reality. The Insurrection Act states that during a national emergency, the president can deploy military troops inside the US to suppress any "unlawful combinations" or "conspiracies" that "obstructs or hinders the execution of the law." The problem, again, is that the terms are so vaguely defined.

President Eisenhower once used this law to enforce desegregation in schools. But a president with different sentiments could just as easily use it against protestors or undocumented migrants. For instance, if Trump were to decide Black Lives Matter constituted an "unlawful combination" during a state of emergency, sending the army to suppress them would be fully within his power. Alternatively, a sanctuary city harboring illegal immigrants might be interpreted as a "conspiracy" and therefore subject to military rule.

In many ways, the limits of an American president's power during a national emergency have not been tested. On one hand, theoretical checks and balances do exist which could allow Congress to end a national emergency that was being abused. On the other hand, this would require a majority that a largely partisan Senate would likely not have. There also might be opportunities for the courts to block various moves made during a national emergency but, again, the legality here is largely untested.

Ultimately, as citizens, we must keep a watchful eye on our president's actions should he declare a national emergency. And if things go south, we must keep this in mind the next time we vote. After all, when one person who is supposed to represent all of us holds so much power, we must make sure it is a person of strong enough character and mental capability to understand the repercussions of his or her actions.