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Immigrant advocates ask to ‘Drop the I-Word’

 
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5:00 P.M. EST December 6, 2010 | NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)

Ilda Vasquez of Texas participates in a march and rally in support of immigrant rights during the 2010 Assembly of United Methodist Women in St. Louis. Photo by Paul Jeffrey/Response.
Ilda Vasquez of Texas participates in a march and rally in support of immigrant rights during the 2010 Assembly of United Methodist Women in St. Louis. Photo by Paul Jeffrey/Response.
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Dehumanizing language should not be part of the conversation on U.S. immigration reform, says Erin M. Hawkins.

That is why her agency, the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race, is urging church members to join “Drop the I-Word,” a national campaign calling for the elimination of the word “illegal” in such discussions.

The commission is using its website in a year-long attempt to gather 10,000 United Methodist pledges to the campaign.

The campaign’s goal is not about targeting specific immigration reform but reframing the conversation about undocumented immigrants. “The intent of the campaign is really around language,” said Hawkins, the commission’s top executive. “It isn’t around changing classification of status.”

Somehow, it has become acceptable to use the term “illegal” when talking about people of color, she explained, but that label usually has a negative effect. “It is to paint a picture of them as scary or dangerous,” she said. “It’s a useful tactic to make us blind or numb to their plight.”

Demonstrators gather at a San Francisco Tea Party rally. A web-only photo by Davitydave, flickr/creative commons.
Demonstrators gather at a San Francisco Tea Party rally. A web-only photo by Davitydave, flickr/creative commons.

In fact, immigration statutes do not refer to a person as legal or illegal, said Mayuris Pimentel, regional attorney for the Central Florida Justice for Our Neighbors, an advocacy program sponsored by the United Methodist Committee on Relief.

“Illegal aliens” is a description for non-citizens who do not currently have legal status; the term is not meant to define a person.

“When you use the term illegal aliens, the first thing that comes to your mind is not a person,” Pimentel said.

Using that term, rather than a person’s name, “is like defining a person as other,” Pimentel declared. “You’re able to distance yourself from the humanity of the person that you’re talking about.”

Dale Weatherspoon, a commission member from Sunnyvale, Calif., said he hopes the campaign stimulates conversation “and makes people think.”

“Illegal” is a word that can categorize and divide, even if that is not the user’s intention. “In society, we have a lot of labels,” he added. “Those labels are used politically to divide and separate us. But that’s not what I see the church as being about.”

He’s hoping the campaign will foster discussion from local congregations and annual (regional) conferences “about how we as a church can put our faith to work in this immigration debate.”

The denomination’s Social Principles affirms the rights of immigrants and urges both church and society “to recognize the gifts, contributions, and struggles of those who are immigrants and to advocate for justice for all.”

“Drop the I-Word” was launched by the Applied Research Center, a racial-justice think tank urging media outlets, and Colorlines, its online community. The campaign defines “illegal(s)” as “a damaging word that divides and dehumanizes communities and is used to discriminate against immigrants and people of color. The I-Word is shorthand for illegal alien, illegal immigrant and other harmful racially charged terms.”

United Methodist Bishop Minerva Carcaño of Phoenix, the commission’s vice president and chair of the denominational Interagency Immigration Task Force, likes the idea of 10,000 church members committing themselves to eliminating hate-filled rhetoric. “I pray that we United Methodists would stand with our immigrant brothers and sisters, signing on to this campaign," she said.

People in pews may be on both sides of the immigration debate, Weatherspoon noted, but the “Drop the I-Word” campaign offers local congregations the opportunity to talk about the issue and decide how to be better advocates “for our brothers and sisters who are on the margins.”

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at http://twitter.com/umcscribe.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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