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Maeve in America: About Those 'Illegal Aliens'

As a writer, I have two daily obsessions. One is coffee, the other is language. I’m not a snob about either; I just need them both to make my brain work. In these strange and dangerous days of COVID-19, both of them keep me sane.

But if I had to choose only one, I’d give up my beloved coffee for words. I understand how important language is in my own life, so I keep an eye on how it operates, the work it does, and the influence it has.

The new coronavirus does not check our papers, it comes for us all. In this emergency, governments need to stop checking papers too.

An important choice must be made by each of us when we talk about people who were not born in the United States but are living here without legal status. Perhaps that’s you, or someone in your family. It’s surely someone in your community. Best estimates place the number of people in this circumstance at about 10.5 million.

When I talk about this group, I use the words “undocumented immigrants.” When President Donald Trump talks, he prefers the words “illegal aliens.” Or at least that’s the term he uses now. The Washington Post reported that Trump said “illegal alien” only twice in his first year as President. In 2019, he suddenly started using the phrase a lot, including three times in ten minutes in his first prime-time Oval Office address.

In her award-winning book, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America, Mae Ngai writes, “The illegal alien that is abstractly defined is something of a spectre, a body stripped of individual personage.” So that’s what the President is doing: “Illegal” sounds like a criminal and “alien” sounds like a monster. It’s easier to deny human rights to criminals and monsters than, say, your gentle uncle who happens to live here without the correct paperwork.

During the March 15 debate, Joe Biden referred to “an undocumented alien,” then quickly corrected himself to “an undocumented person.” This seeming slip-up came as he answered a question about the danger of undocumented people underreporting cases of COVID-19 out of the fear that if they make themselves known, they will be reported to immigration authorities and potentially deported.

Biden insisted they should be safe to report an illness and get help without repercussions.  Bernie Sanders added that his proposed Medicare for All plan includes the undocumented, saying, “That should be a general principle, above and beyond the coronavirus.”  

The U.S. economy has always needed immigrant labor, and being the relentlessly capitalistic nation that it is, the cheaper that labor, the better. These undocumented hands and bodies do the tough work of fruit picking, meat packing, and dish washing, as well as care work for American children and elderly people.

We are all interdependent. The Department of Agriculture estimates that about half of the nation’s farmworkers are unauthorized, while 15 percent of those in construction lack papers—more than the share of legal immigrants in either industry. In the service sector, which would include jobs such as fast-food and domestic help, the figure is about 9 percent.

These immigrants may have families and pay taxes, but they have no rights here. They are lucky to just get a paycheck in a country that takes so much from them. So the undocumented are a source of compliant labor that the United States has never had to take care of in any way. Isn’t that just charming? A neoliberal dream come true. The new coronavirus does not check our papers, it comes for us all. In this emergency, governments need to stop checking papers too. And we all need to make sure that our language does not, literally, alienate others.

 “This cycle of restricted labor mobility and deportation is crucial to the maintenance of global apartheid,” sociologist Tanya Golash-Boza has written. Crucially, she traces why immigrants came here in the first place, the economic realities that caused them to move, and the need in the United States’ economy for a “disposable” labor force.

Surely, humans aren’t disposable, but perhaps “illegal aliens” are? The words we choose to use about other people tell a bigger story than their meaning, and that story is ultimately about us. If we do not make health insurance a priority for all citizens and immigrants, documented or not, many of us may have a deadly price to pay.

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