Rising Hate for Migrants Worldwide Starts with Criminalizing

by Pramila Jayapal


December 15 2010


This Saturday marks the 10th anniversary of International
Migrants Day and the 20th anniversary of the passage of the
U.N. Convention to Protect Migrant Workers. This is an
important moment to reflect on the fact that today nearly
one billion people are on the move across the world, and
they are increasingly the target of hatred and violence.
That's why I am celebrating International Migrants Day by
signing the pledge to respect immigrants everywhere by
dropping the i-word and demanding that the media do the

Politicians and media alike use the word "illegal" to
describe human beings without immigration status, sometimes
shortening "illegal immigrant" to "illegals." While this may
seem trivial to some, the language of criminality plays an
enormous part in moving people along the continuum from
language to violent behavior. Calling people "illegal,"
describing them in ways that make them less them human,
recasts them as members of an undeserving sub-class that are
owed less respect than what would otherwise be acceptable
for "regular" human beings.

We know that, leading up to and during World War II,
language was a powerful factor in moving an ideological and
genocidal agenda. The language of elimination of an entire
race - described as the "final solution" - was used
frequently and without apology. In the decades following the
Holocaust, this kind of language was widely condemned and
deemed unacceptable. And yet, as recently as this year, we
have seen genocidal language directed at migrants worldwide.

Consider the recent statement of the deputy mayor of the
Italian city of Treviso in relation to the issue of the
undocumented Roma migrants: "I want a revolution against
gypsies ... I want to eliminate all the gypsy children who

Or consider the United States, where anti-immigrant
extremists have painted a picture of all-out warfare that
threatens the very idea of nationhood. Conservative
commentator Pat Buchanan claimed on MSNBC that the influx of
undocumented immigrants into the U.S. is "an invasion, the
greatest invasion in history ... the last scene is the
deconstruction of the nations."

The leap from fear mongering to violence - vigilantism or
state-sponsored - is surprisingly short. The imagery of war
and warfare helps to up the ante. After all, if this is
really war, we must protect "our own."

Across the world, violence against immigrants is on the
rise. The Libyan government, according to a report just
released by Amnesty International, has been torturing
undocumented African migrants through electric shock and
beating, even shooting at fishing boats because they may
have held "illegal immigrants."

In Sweden, shortly after the far right, anti-immigrant party
won a place in Parliament for the first time, police
arrested a 38-year-old man suspected of carrying out a dozen
shootings, nearly all immigrants, where one person died and
eight were wounded.

In the United States, the FBI has documented a dramatic
increase in reported hate crimes against Latinos, from 595
in 2003 to 888 in 2007. Along the U.S.-Mexico border, armed
vigilante groups who claim to be "dedicated to the defense
of American patriotism" are on the rise, and the New York
Times has consistently reported on the number of deaths that
occur in detention centers due to callous disregard for
medical needs of immigrant detainees.

One of our challenges in fighting the criminalization of
migrants is that the most extreme voices in the
dehumanization of immigrants have been legitimized by the
media and politicians as representatives of the "other side"
of the immigration debate. In spite of numerous reports from
the Anti-Defamation League, the Southern Poverty Law Center
and Media Matters that call out the connections to clear
racist and xenophobic ideologies, groups such as the
Federation for American Immigration Reform are routinely
called on to give testimony in Congress or provide comments
for news stories. Their racism skews the bounds of
reasonable discourse about immigrants - and as a result sets
extreme new bounds for reasonable policy, too.

As economic insecurity heightens, Americans and Europeans
who would otherwise support rational and human polices on
migration - polls consistently find vast majorities in this
camp - are drawn into fear. It becomes socially acceptable,
and even personally necessary, to scapegoat or become
violent towards someone else - namely, immigrants.

In this polarized environment, some policy makers have
fueled the frenzy by embracing restrictionist policies that
further criminalize immigrants. The success in exploiting
fear in an increasingly fragile economic environment has led
to fringe political parties across the world coming into
power for the first time.

The Guardian has documented the rise of these fringe parties
in Europe to "such a degree that they are now in the
position of propping up governments." Parties that espouse
anti-Muslim views have gained ground, and state-sponsored
policies that ban core practices of Islam (such as burkhas
in France or minarets in Switzerland) are increasingly
common. In the U.S., politicians who hold extreme anti-
immigrant views are now in positions of power in the House
of Representatives and are expected to introduce
unprecedentedly regressive legislation, including an attempt
to amend the Constitution's birthright-citizenship clause.

Some are also pushing back, recognizing the real danger we
face of escalating violence and polarization. In early 2010,
Pope Benedict XVI, reacting to the riots in Southern Italy
in which African immigrants were attacked, reminded people
that, "An immigrant is a human being, different in
background, culture and tradition, but a person to be
respected, and possessing rights and duties. ...Violence
must never be a way to resolve differences."

We need to push back more - and take the hate out of the
debate. It's time to stop using racist, fear-mongering
language that promotes and even condones violence. It's time
to create space for a rational, thoughtful and humane
discussion around migration and immigration policies that
support the economic and moral need for managed flows of
people. Join me in celebrating International Migrants Day by
taking a simple but significant stand for humanity. Take the
pledge and Drop the I-Word.

[Pramila Jayapal is the founder and Executive Director of
OneAmerica.  She is an immigrant from India and has spent
over twenty years working for social justice, both
internationally and domestically.  Under her leadership,
OneAmerica has achieved significant policy change in
Washington State, leading efforts to win numerous victories
for immigrants including:  a New Americans Executive Order
signed by Washington Governor Chris Gregoire, a
comprehensive plan to address the needs of immigrant
communities in Seattle, an ordinance preventing any City of
Seattle employee from inquiring about immigration status,
and numerous resolutions at the city and county level
upholding the human rights and dignity of immigrants and
affirming the need for comprehensive immigration reform.
Also under her leadership, OneAmerica has engaged in the
first large-scale immigrant voter registration program in
the state, registering tens of thousands of new citizens to
vote and organizing within immigrant communities to engage
and involve immigrants in democracy.  Nationally, Pramila
has helped to lead the fight for due process and
comprehensive immigration reform, serving as Vice Chair of
the Rights Working Group national coalition as well as on
the Executive Committee of the Fair Immigration Reform
Movement.  In 2008, she was appointed by Governor Gregoire
as Vice Chair of the New Americans Policy Council.]

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