By Thomas Edwards ’19
On Thursday, October 26, 2017 at 6 p.m. in the Ruane Great Room, the Providence Immigrant Rights Coalition hosted a panel discussing the use of the word “illegal” when referring to undocumented immigrants.
Speakers at the panel included Father David Orique, O.P., an assistant professor of history and director of Latin American Studies at Providence College, Dr. Jonathan Dator, staff psychologist, and Dr. Anthony Rodriguez, an assistant professor of elementary and special education. Members of PIRC asked the three panelists a series of questions regarding use of the word “illegal” before opening the floor to students in attendance.
First asked was the question of why the word is commonly used to refer to undocumented immigrants. Fr. Orique was the first to answer saying it is “dehumanizing to call someone illegal.” He went on to say it is “a way to put somebody ‘in their place.’ To let them know they’re different than us.” Dator expanded on Fr. Orique’s answer by adding some people use it because it is “all they’ve ever heard, [they] assume it’s all there is to say.” He did add, however, that some do know that there are other terms and still use “illegal” for political reasons.
“Illegal sounds bad,” said Dator, “if [I] use the word, it’d create the response I want.” Rodriguez expanded further saying “there is some innocence, but a lot of spinning and politicizing” when referring to politicians using the term in order to keep people from belonging. Rodriguez went on to say that “when talking about divine right, only Native Americans belong here.” Rodriguez concluded that “A more specific thing to ask is ‘do you have papers?’ [But] we don’t want to be precise so we use words that hurt.”
The panelists were asked what the legal implications behind the use of the word illegal were. Fr. Orique answered by saying when people refer to laws they are “usually talking of positive law [made] by people. Less than 100 years ago women could not vote, but we can agree now that it was wrong and so eventually the laws were changed. The same was with slavery.”
Fr. Orique went on to talk of how it is “unnatural to tear families apart,” and also said that the Bible teaches us “it is wrong to oppress the resident aliens.” Fr. Orique then went on to discuss the Catholic Church’s response to the rescinding of DACA, calling it a “reprehensible act” and explaining how Pope Francis responded to Trump’s decision.
Fr. Orique paraphrased the Pope’s response as “Trump claims to be pro-life but doesn’t respect all life. On a natural level we shouldn’t harm others.”
Dator said that people need to follow laws but that “migration is not a crime so it cannot be called illegal because it never is.” He went on to say “any reputable publication would never use the term.” Dr. Rodriguez said that “immigrants come seen as ‘an other’ no matter the ethnicity.”
When asked what the effect of the word has on people, Dator was the first to answer. Dator said, “Language and words are so important when you tell the story for someone,” when referring to how we talk about immigrants instead of hear from them. “You set the standard and they start to question themselves and believe the narrative we set for them.”
Dator went on to explain the importance of using “person first dialogue, saying ‘that person with a disability’ instead of ‘that disabled person.’” and doing the same when talking of undocumented immigrants.
Fr. Orique added that we should not dismiss this as being too politically correct. He addressed that “dismissing someone as PC sweeps something very complex under a small rug.” Fr. Orique continued to say “language is complex and can be used to heal or hurt. Weaponized language is a misuse of power.”
Rodriguez added that this is “similar to ‘drop the R word.’” He said that the word “illegal” has “damaged so many peoples sense of self,” going on further to talk of the use of language to “isolate groups, making it easier for ‘conquest.’”
The panel closed by answering the question “What should we call undocumented immigrants on campus?” and the follow up, “How do we stop the use of the word ‘illegal’ when referring to undocumented immigrants?”
Fr. Orique gave the simple answer, “Ask them what they want to be called,” when answering the first question; he added, to help stop the use of the word, we should “be tough on the problem but soft on the people,” encouraging us to open dialogue with people instead of shouting matches in attempts to educate.
Fr. Orique gave the example that most people think of gun violence when thinking of Mexico, but “80 percent of gun violence in Mexico is from guns from the U.S. due to our lax gun laws.” Rodriguez said to “make immigrant a positive word, and ask what they want to be called.” He went on to say to combat the use of the word we should “call people out and explain why it’s bad.” Dr. Dator stated that we should call them “students, just as we do anyone else on campus.”