Words matter in immigration debate

Somewhere in Douglas, Ga., or in Kendall, Ill., or in Luzerne, Pa. — anywhere that Hispanics are a growing presence but not a majority —a child is wondering, who are these people in the news who are causing such a commotion? I’m referring, of course, to undocumented immigrants, or, as the child of my hypothetical is likely to hear, “illegal” immigrants, maybe even aliens.

Perhaps that child is already making a connection, a lasting one, between “illegality” and the quiet, new kid in the classroom who doesn’t speak English and eats “weird” home-made meals at lunch time.

I can imagine such an scenario happening all over the country because I’ve spent more than three years reconstructing the events that led to a horrific crime in Patchogue, Long Island almost five years ago.

On Nov. 8, 2008 two undocumented immigrants from Ecuador were walking near the train station in their neighborhood when a gaggle of high school kids attacked them and stabbed one of them. The man bled to death. His name was Marcelo Lucero, and he was 37.

What was especially shocking about Lucero’s case was that some of the teenagers admitted to going around attacking immigrants several times a week, as a sport, as entertainment, which they called “beaner hunting.”

The attack, however, was not an aberration. It’s happened before and it will probably continue to happen, despite penalty-enhancing hate-crime laws in all but five states — Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Wyoming.

Now, why does anyone still think that attacking an immigrant is fair game?

Hate-crime experts point to several patterns and causes. First, the attackers seldom act alone, they tend to be young and male and they may or may not be under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs.

As for the causes — and this is not surprising — what they hear and see growing up at home and elsewhere matters. Music matters, so do teachers, parents, trusted news organizations, the depiction of so-called minorities in films, and the opinion of people in positions of authority, such as police officers, mayors, and, yes, senators and members of Congress.

This is why what’s been happening in Washington on immigration is so vital. The debate is important, but so is the tone of it.

First, the Supreme Court ruled on Monday that Arizona cannot require proof of citizenship from people seeking to vote in federal elections, since border control and how federal elections are held are national issues, not local ones.

In reaction to that decision, we got this quote from John Kavanagh, a Republican state legislator from Arizona, in The New York Times: “Arizona has a serious problem with illegal immigration, being one of the leading illegal entry states, so protecting the credibility of our election system requires that we exclude illegal aliens and any other noncitizen from voting.”

While no one will disagree with the idea that noncitizens can’t vote, having a legislator from Arizona, a state that has tried to institute a “show me your papers” law for anyone who’s driving while Hispanic, if you will, makes the issue another Hispanic “problem.” Not only are we here illegally, we also attempt to vote in a country that’s not ours!

All of this happened the week that the Senate is debating immigration reform. It is by no means a certainty that our federal legislators will approve a clunky bill that pleases no one but that it is an acceptable compromise for many. The issue of creating a path to citizenship for 11.1 million undocumented immigrants continues to be very volatile for most Republicans and even for some Democrats.

The New Yorker reported this week that even New York’s liberal senator Charles Schumer, one of the members of the Gang of Eight who spearheaded the bill along with Sen. John McCain, has taken to use the word “illegal” when referring to undocumented immigrants as a strategy.

He said he studied the 2007 immigration-reform bill and concluded that one of the reasons that bill had failed was because then Sen. Ted Kennedy kept using the words “undocumented workers.” Conservatives thought Kennedy did not think the immigrants were “illegal,” after all. Schumer learned a lesson. “I made a decision: I would have to keep saying ‘illegal immigrants,’ ’’ he told the magazine.

The thing is if the bill passes, at some point soon there will be millions of new citizens in the United States — not all of them Hispanics, of course, but a sizable chunk will be. They’ll remember who helped them and who didn’t when they are facing the voting booth.

If the bill doesn’t pass, concerned citizens will remember, as well, just as they did last November. Either way, it would be good for all to realize that our children are watching and learning.

What we say, matters. What we do, even more.

Passing this bill will be one way to show Americans — young and old — that Hispanic newcomers are no longer a “problem” that needs to be legislated away. They will be, like everybody else, simply Americans.

Read more Mirta Ojito stories from the Miami Herald


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