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.

Image via thoughtco.com

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."

Image from Time

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.

Image via CNN.com

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 keeps 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 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.

Sing It Out, Ladies: 10 Songs for the Female Politician In You

From Cardi B to Hamilton to Queen Bey herself, here are ten songs that have inspired and soundtracked the ascensions of female politicians and powerful women of the modern world.

If it wasn't clear from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's recent Twitter battle with Cardi B and Tomi Lahren, we're living in an era where politicians and musicians have the ability to influence each other on huge scales.

But music has long been a source of inspiration and power, especially for women or other people whose voices have been subjugated or silenced.

In honor of the newest class of women in Congress, and in celebration of women in politics in general, here's a list of ten songs that we think would make the perfect soundtrack to their ascensions, and might even inspire you to follow suit.

1. Cardi B – Best Life

Cardi B - Best Life feat. Chance The Rapper [Official Audio] www.youtube.com

Not only did Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez grow up in the same borough of New York as superstar Cardi B; she also tweeted the lyrics to her song Best Life, featuring Chance the Rapper.

The song's lyrics seem to align with Ocasio-Cortez's approach to communicating with her supporters, which has been radically honest and personal, as she frequently shares developments at work and at home via her Instagram stories. Though she was met with backlash from users who told her to "write intelligibly," Ocasio-Cortez's supporters cheered the reference.

Unabashedly outspoken and proud of their stratospheric rise to the top of their respective fields, Ocasio-Cortez and Cardi B are two women who seem to be on unstoppable paths—while determined to keep it real all the while.

2. Anaïs Mitchell – Why We Build the Wall

Anaïs Mitchell ft. Greg Brown - Why We Build the Wall www.youtube.com

When folk singer Anaïs Mitchell penned "Why We Build the Wall" in 2006 for her concept album Hadestown, she never imagined that its lyrics—which retell the story of the Greek god of death Hades and his quasi-American capitalist hellscape—would become so relevant.

The song is a call-and-response narrative between Hades and his citizens, who work ceaselessly on a wall in exchange for the economic security that living in Hadestown provides. It contains lyrics like, "The wall keeps out the enemy / and the enemy is poverty / and we build the wall to keep us free / that's why we build the wall." Hadestown, which also tells the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, is coming to Broadway in the spring of 2019.

This song seems like it would make the perfect satirical rallying cry for Nancy Pelosi, who denounced Donald Trump's request for $5.7 billion to build his wall between the U.S. and Mexico after his speech on January 8th, two weeks in to what would become the longest government shutdown ever.

3. Aretha Franklin – Respect

Aretha Franklin - Respect [1967] (Original Version) www.youtube.com

Aretha Franklin passed away in August of 2018, but her legacy lives on within every woman who ever wanted to be treated with honor and—as perhaps her most iconic song repeats—R - E - S - P - E - C - T. (Hint: that's all of us).

Aretha's unforgettable voice soars above the song's infectious musical backdrop, coalescing to form a track that is alternatingly prideful and enraged, hopeful and world-weary. This song's message seems too vast to be contained to one politician or time period. It's a timeless sentiment that could change the world, if we'd only listen.

4. Ms. Lauryn Hill – Everything is Everything

Lauryn Hill - Everything Is Everything www.youtube.com

In June, recently-announced 2020 presidential candidate Kamala Harris posted a Spotify playlist as a homage to important black musicians of the 20th century. The third song on the playlist, "Everything is Everything" from the iconic The Miseducation of Ms. Lauryn Hill, echoes sentiments that Harris has proclaimed in her own speeches.

Its powerful lyrics, "Sometimes it seems / We'll touch that dream. But things come slow or not at all / And the ones on top, won't make it stop / So convinced that they might fall," seem like they could be a rallying cry for Harris, a politician campaigning on promises of "American values" and "not putting people in boxes."

Hill's message of everything is everything is a beautiful sentiment about the way that all people and all issues are interconnected and cannot be addressed independently, and she has long been a powerful voice for women of color.

Kamala Harris's work as a prosecutor is under scrutiny from leftists everywhere, but judging by her playlist, at least her music taste is up to par.

5. Lin-Manuel Miranda – Satisfied

Satisfied www.youtube.com

Female characters take the backseat to the titular protagonist of Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton, but Angelica Schuyler's Satisfied is a show-stopper in a class of its own. Sung by the sister of Eliza, Alexander Hamilton's wife, it is a flashback to the night that they all met, when Angelica developed feelings for Alexander but decided she needed to set her sights on marrying someone richer.

Angelica, played by Renée Elise Goldsberry in the musical, spits some of the show's fastest bars and hits some of its highest notes in this virtuosic performance, which reveals the extent of her brilliance as well as the extent of her regret at not taking a chance on love.

It might be easy to dedicate this song to Hillary Clinton, whose tenacious determination to win the presidency and refusal to be satisfied with a mere first-ladyship (or Secretary of State position) does belie a similar ambition to Angelica's.

But Angelica, with her razor-sharp wit and social sensibilities, seems similar to some of Congress's outspoken freshmen members, such Ayanna Pressley, who has been an outspoken critic of Trump and many of his policies from her first moments on the House floor, running on the message "Change can't wait" with an urgency evocative of Angelica's intense drive.

6. Taylor Swift – Bad Blood

Taylor Swift - Bad Blood ft. Kendrick Lamar www.youtube.com

Taylor Swift has had her fair share of beef with other artists, but until 2018 remained staunchly apolitical. But after Swift announced in an Instagram post that she "could not support Marsha Blackburn," the politician lashed out—provoking serious flashbacks to the time that Taylor Swift allegedly attacked Katy Perry over a feud involving backup dancers through her video, Bad Blood.

The stakes were slightly higher in this situation, and Blackburn still snagged the Senate seat in spite of the star's opposition.

"Of course I support women and I want violence to end against women," said Blackburn in response to Swift, who had also written that the politician's "voting record in Congress appalls and terrifies" her. Blackburn has been a supporter of Trump's border wall as well as his efforts to end Obamacare.

7. Questlove's Entire Michelle Obama Playlist

Michelle Obama's Musiaqualogy Vol 1 1964-1979 by Questlove

Michelle Obama's Musiaqualogy Vol 2. 1980-1997 by Questlove

Michelle Obama's Musiaqualogy Vol 3. 1997-2018 by Questlove

The musician Questlove of the band The Roots has created three 100-song playlists for Michelle Obama's Becoming book tour, and every song is worth putting on repeat. Entitled The Michelle Obama Musiaquology, it is a journey through time (and occasionally, space) filled with mournful, fierce, and empowering tracks—much like the biography it was designed to soundtrack.

Obama's Becoming is more about hope and unity than it is about politics and division, and so are most of the songs in this playlist. An exuberant melding of jazz, pop, and the occasional stylistic outlier, Questlove's compilation elevates voices of joy, pride, black power, and solidarity in an era in desperate need of them. Featuring icons ranging from Ella Fitzgerald to Kendrick Lamar, it's a survey of music throughout history that has given hope to those who need it most.

8. MILCK – I Can't Keep Quiet

MILCK - Quiet www.youtube.com

Newcomer MILCK's powerful composition became the anthem of the first Women's March, and since then, the artist has continued to release waves of meaningful music while maintaining a confessional and motivational social media presence.

The vulnerable and passionate song that made her famous could be an anthem for kids like Emma Gonzalez, speaking out against gun violence, and for all the other women who have spoken and will continue to reach out and fight for their beliefs.

9. Against Me! — True Trans Soul Rebel

Against Me! - True Trans Soul Rebel [ALBUM VERSION] www.youtube.com

In the shadows of the Trump administration's ban against transgender people in the military, this song is a reminder that trans people not only exist but will continue to fight.

Transgender politician Christine Hallquist did not win in the general Vermont elections for governor, but she did secure a spot in the 2018 Democratic primaries, the first time a transgender person has been nominated by a major party. And more transgender and LGBTQ people ran and won races in November 2018 than ever before, signaling an upswing of pride in spite of the Trump administration's anti-trans policies.

Against Me!'s True Trans Soul Rebel has long been an anthem for the transgender community, an outcry of pain against a world that constantly threatens them with erasure.

10. Beyoncé – Who Run the World (Girls)

Beyoncé - Run the World (Girls) (Video - Main Version) www.youtube.com

No list of songs for female politicians would be complete without Queen Bey's presence. This song is one of the crown jewels of feminist anthems, with its infectious beat pounding underneath Beyonce's velvety vocals and its iconic refrain. This one goes out to all the future female politicians, including the hopefully soon-to-be first female commander-in-chief.

With that, we welcome the 42 new female congresswomen, celebrate the women who came before them, and encourage all the women and trans people coming after to rise up and sing out. Listen to these songs enough and internalize their messages, and it could be you in those seats someday.


Eden Arielle Gordon is a writer and musician from New York City.