The big international news last week—bigger even than the #Pray4Reform event in Washington, D.C. last Wednesday, as newsworthy as that was—was the birth of Great Britain’s royal baby. Prince William and Princess Kate became parents last Monday to a little baby boy eventually named George Alexander Louis. In anticipation of the birth, as Boyce College professor Owen Strachan notes in a compelling article in The Atlantic, the news media consistently referred to the “royal baby,” even though their usual practice is to refer to not-yet-born people—especially in the context of discussions of abortion—as fetuses. The terminology that we use certainly shapes our thinking about the inherent value of this little person.
For many, the debate over abortion hinges over whether the unborn individuals affected are indeed fully human “babies” or, until the point of birth, merely “fetuses.” As Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission notes, the terminology we use can either humanize or dehumanize, whether we’re talking about unborn children or immigrants without legal status: “There is a way of dehumanizing unborn children by calling them embryos and fetuses, and there is a way of dehumanizing our [immigrant] neighbors by calling them illegal aliens and anchor babies,” he says. In a CNN Op-Ed last year, Moore joined other evangelical leaders Jim Daly of Focus on the Family and Samuel Rodriguez of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference in reminding Christians that God says he will hold us accountable for the rhetoric that we use to describe other people, including immigrant neighbors. “Derogatory terms for other human beings… should never pass our lips. To call it rhetorical pornography, for the debasement it engenders, is not an overstatement,” they write.
Though the term has, thankfully, become less common in recent months (the Associated Press and various other news outlets have ceased to use the term, and Members of Congress of both parties generally seem to have adopted the less abrasive “undocumented immigrant”) many Americans think of those who do not have legal status in the United States as “illegal aliens” or simply as “illegals.” The term alien is not necessarily grammatically incorrect, but as language has evolved, it has become perhaps the most literally dehumanizing term possible: while it may have had a different connotation when the King James translation of the Bible was completed 500 years ago or even when our federal immigration laws were drafted decades ago, now the term evokes Hollywood-inspired images of green, three-headed Martians. No wonder so many Americans equate immigration of these “aliens” as a threat, and no wonder so many people seem to forget as they talk about the millions of “illegal aliens” that they are talking about human beings, made in God’s image (Genesis 1:27).
The term “illegal” is problematic for grammatical reasons. “Illegal,” first of all, is an adjective, not a noun. Actions are illegal: it is entirely fair to say that someone migrated illegally—an adverb—if the action of crossing the border was in violation of law (though even that gets complicated, because about half of those who are currently present unlawfully did not migrate illegally: they entered on a valid, legal visa, but violated the law at the point that they failed to return to their country of origin before their authorized stay expired). It is imprecise, and ultimately unfair, to describe a person as “illegal,” even if she has committed an unlawful action.
As we point out in our new G92 video, “Illegal” (which we hope you find both humorous, thought-provoking, and action-inspiring, and which I hope that you’ll post to your Facebook wall with some of your own comments), most of us have violated a law at one point in our lives. Still, our society tends to reserve the term “illegal” for those who have violated a civil immigration law: we don’t label those speeding down the highway as “illegal drivers,” for example.
Our point is not to minimize the violation of law. I believe the rule of law is incredibly important. But when laws are broken on a widespread basis because they don’t actually make any sense—and our archaic immigration laws have only been enforced selectively for decades, because if fully enforced they would have dramatically negatively impacts on our economy, our national security, and our social cohesion—the solution is not to apply dehumanizing labels to those in violation of law, but rather to change the law. That’s what we are supposed to do in a democracy. Congress has the best opportunity it has had in decades to really fix our immigration system: to restore the rule of law (by moving toward a market-sensitive visa system that would incentivize lawful migration while making unlawful entry, overstaying a temporary visa, and working without authorization much more difficult) and provide accountability for those who have violated the law (by requiring the payment of fines as a penalty) while also acknowledging their dignity and their many contributions to our society and our economy (by allowing them to eventually earn citizenship).
Congress will only make these changes, though, if they are convinced that their constituents want them. Last week in D.C., several congressional offices told me that they were still receiving more calls against reforms than for, and that they were wary to vote for immigration reform if that ratio did not change. That’s your job: we’ve set up a new advocacy page to make it super easy—literally, it will take two minutes or less—to figure out who your Member of Congress is and to make a phone call. It’s time to change our broken laws.
Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the US Church Training Specialist at World Relief. His blogs appear here on Mondays.
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