Ask the White Guy: ‘Illegal’ Is a Dehumanizing Term

In response to a recent Politico article, "Dems' Tough New Immigration Pitch," DiversityInc CEO Luke Visconti explains how dangerous it is to pander to haters and how a market downturn spurs social change.

Luke Visconti’s Ask the White Guy column is a top draw on Visconti, the founder and CEO of DiversityInc, is a nationally recognized leader in diversity management. In his popular column, readers who ask Visconti tough questions about race/culture, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability and age can expect smart, direct and disarmingly frank answers.

A recent Politico article states: “Long pilloried for being soft on illegal immigration, top Democratic officials have concluded there’s only one way they can hope to pass a comprehensive immigration bill: Talk more like Republicans. They’re seizing on the work of top Democratic Party operatives who, after a legislative defeat in 2007, launched a multiyear polling project to craft an enforcement-first, law-and-order, limited-compassion pitch that now defines the party’s approach to the issue.

“The 12 million people who unlawfully reside the country? Call them ‘illegal immigrants,’ not ‘undocumented workers,’ the pollsters say. Strip out the empathy, too. Democrats used to offer immigrants ‘an earned path to citizenship’ so hardworking people trying to support their families could ‘come out of the shadows.’ To voters, that sounded like a gift, the operatives concluded. Now, Democrats emphasize that it’s ‘unacceptable’ to allow 12 million people to live in America illegally and that the government must ‘require’ them to register and ‘get right with the law.’ That means three things: ‘Obey our laws, learn our language and pay our taxes’—or face deportation.”

Response: What foolishness. Pandering to haters is a slippery slope that always leads to self-immolation.

I have no problem giving someone the “gift” of earning their way to citizenship, especially when this country screwed up the process to become a citizen in the first place and didn’t enforce the law because it was convenient to have the workers here.

Here’s something to think about: We’re in the middle of producing an article on the prison-industrial complex. There are three for-profit prison companies that are publicly traded. Stocks go up when revenue increases, but the growth spurt in creating new prisoners has flattened out now that we imprison eight times the rest of the world’s average*. So what happens? OH! Here’s an idea: Let’s round up the “illegals” and stuff them in detention centers (that the for-profit prison companies are busy building and staffing). It’s a move that will plump up stock prices—and employ thousands of people who will vote in their selfish best interests. Why didn’t it happen until now? It’s not palatable to round up the “illegals” when the economy is booming and business owners NEED those workers, but a downturn in the economy means you can create new laws to prey on the people you’re now dehumanizing. Re-read your history of why the Weimar Republic ended—and who ended it.

Which leads me to another interesting fact: Guess what other industry went up in this downturn? SWAT-team attacks.

Interesting to think that the Second Amendment was put in place mainly to give the citizens parity with soldiers. (The British were an occupying force. The Second Amendment—and THIRD Amendment; have you read that one lately?—were put in place to prevent future oppressive occupying forces.) We don’t have parity anymore. Every podunk police force has a “SWAT team” with MP5 submachine guns, black uniforms—and hoods to hide identities. See what happens if you wear an outfit like that to Walmart.

So sure, let them round up them “illegals”—yee-ha! We can concentrate them in facilities that the misery merchants will build for us. Hey, after all, Daddy Prisonbucks needs a new vacation home and that will employ people too! But who will they come after once that growth industry runs out? After all, even with 10 million to 16 million “illegals,” it won’t take long to tap that vein. The water’s coming to a boil and we’re in the pot asking “I wonder what they’re cooking—it smells so good.”

For what it’s worth, I have no problem with “illegal immigrants,” but I do have a problem calling someone an “illegal.” The minute you dehumanize a group (which calling a person an “illegal” does), you take a major step in treating people inhumanly. For example, you can whip soldiers up to “kill the g–ks” and “torch the ‘ville” and joke about it, but it gets personal sometimes. Diversity expert and civil-rights activist Dr. Betances once told me about seeing American Army posters designed to whip up hate to kill Cubans after Castro’s revolution (when we were noodling about invading Cuba). The posters dehumanized Cuban faces (so the soldiers would have a lower threshold to killing them). It was painfully clear to Dr. Betances that he looked a lot like the guys pictured in the posters!

The point is: When has feeding hate not come back to bite the haters in the butt—often fatally? I see these people with their protest signs saying things like “What part of ‘illegal’ don’t you understand?” and I wonder at how readily foolish people can be manipulated to bring about their own destruction.

*Oh, and by the way, once they’re done making money from these felons, they drop them off on the taxpayer’s lap to take care of now that we’ve made them unemployable. It’s the same thinking that the Goldman Sachs people have—yep, we support the “free market” until it comes time to clean up the mess. Then the perpetrators get scarce and let the taxpayer deal with it.

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  • Unfortunately everything is being dropped into the taxpayers’ lap. Nothing is free.
    My mother was a “legal immigrant”, never having applied for American Citizenship, though, applying, waiting, attaining a green card which she carried with her and following the laws of the United States. There are many people who have applied to come into this country legally and are properly following the rules. While I recognize the vast cultural enrichment we have been blessed with from Mexican and other cultures, the time has come for the government to get a handle on the border situation. Ilegal by any other name is still the same.

  • Luke-
    I absolutely agree. Referring to someone as an “illegal” is hurtful and demeaning, in the same manner as using “stupid” or “retarded”. However, let’s not cloud the issue. If someome currently residing in the United States was not born here or is undocumented, they are in the country illegally. They have broken the law and should be treated in the same manner as anyone who has broken the law…justly, humanely, but facing the consequences of their decision.

  • Illegal is.period. If it were untrue or only used for one group of people then maybe, just maybe it would be dehumanizing.

  • Someone just wrote that someone currently residing here wasn’t born here or is undocumented, they are here illegally … and have broken the law. There is a group of people who are forgotten in that equation – the children of illegal immigrants who were brought here by their parents and grew up here. They did NOT break the law or make the decision to enter the U.S., but they are suffering the consequences.

  • I think the term “illegal” is used largely out of convenience and recognition. Much the same way officers refer to drivers under the influence, without a license, etc as illegal drivers. Illegal is seen commonly as a neutral term in the sense it is not limited to any one race, creed, nationality, etc. Interesting subject though, and one that is talked a lot about in Florida. A speaker at a diversity seminar last year also mentioned something about how they are offended by certain terms, illegal being one of them. When asked how employee handbooks, general conversation, and business communication should refer to “undocumented workers” she really had no clue, but just referred to her list of “do not’s” In another year or two, saying “undocumented worker” will be hate speech.

  • I’m having a hard time seeing this is as an issue. Illegal is defined generally as “forbidden by law or statute” and Immigrant is defined as “a person who migrates to another country, usually for permanent residence.” Therefore, this means that an Illegal Immigrant is a person who has broken the laws of this country to (usually) permanently reside here. I completely understand the premise of your article and agree that people will always use terms to advance their own agenda. My question to you is: what then do you propose person’s who illegally enter and reside in this country be called? I am absolutely open to suggestions!

  • Very interesting thesis regarding prison industry. You are right on about the process of dehumanizing. The Nazis did it to the Poles just before they invaded Poland and started WWII. They did such a good job that negative perceptions of “Polocks” still persists today. We did it to the Japanese in WWII and they did it to us.

    Taking your statement that …” ‘illegal’ is directed primarily at Mexican, Guatemalan and Honduran people who are here illegally” a step further… I am a white guy who grew up on the West Coast with a multitude of Mexican Americans friends. My wife is Mexican American. I now live in Virginia. Most of the recent Hispanics immigrants on the East Coast are El Salvadoran or Honduran. Very few Mexicans here. I have observed that whenever white people refer to Hispanic immigrants here they use the term “Mexicans”. In other words when a white person refers to illegals they mean Mexicans. They don’t have a clue about the differences.

  • First of all I think this immigration issue needs to be called what it really is. The concern isn’t about “immigration”; this is about Mexicans. Thus, another “benefit” of labeling undocumented workers “illegal”, aside from dehumanizing them thus making their mistreatment more acceptable, is that it deprives them of identity and absolves us of responsibility.

    Just like our archaic drug laws facilitate the drug trade and our fixation with driving gas guzzlers fueled with some of the cheapest gas in the world is why companies like BP take risks with our environment, our expectation of access to abundant food and produce facilitates migration.

    These so-called “illegals” are the ones doing stoop work in the fields and working on production lines in food processing plants. The jobs these undocumented workers are supposedly “taking” are jobs few Americans would do … particularly for the wages being paid. To those who scream “Deport ’em all!”, I say: “When we’re confronted with $10 heads of lettuce and $5 oranges and $30 chickens we’ll start whining and wondering what happened.”

  • Are you serious! Where in the world does voicing your opinion become a hate crime? Where are the anti-semantic comments? The term illegal is used correctly whether you like it or not. There are people illegally in our country that came here other than the correct way, through immigration. That makes it illegal not undocumented worker! We are so worried about hurting someone’s feelings that we don’t want to look the elephant in the room in the eyes. They broke into our country illegally just like breakings into my house, both are against the law. Stop making excuses for anyone here illegally!! More Diversity training is not the answer; stricter border regulation is. Thanks

  • Interesting comment regarding the second and third amendments. I suspect that very few Americans know that gun control was really started to disarm the recently freed African Americans slaves. In world history confiscation of firearms proceeds absolute tyrany. Your comment about parity is enlightened. Gun control advocates try to calm any oppositon by offering not to infringe on the right to have hunting rifles and shotguns.

  • Luke:
    Thank you for pointing out the responsibility we have as citizens, business owners, managers, etc. Our desire to have cheap labor to stock the shelves of our stores, to have household help at less than a living wage, to hold on to our money, while taking advantage of the services of people who cannot survive on the wages thay make unless 20 people share a dwelling designed for 3 or 4 people. We looked the other way so long as we could have our cheap labor. Now that there are predictions that there will be more Spanish speaking people in this nation than English speaking – over time, we’re worried about learning a new language. Now that jobs are scarce, we worry about high unemployment – even for jobs that few people want. And still at wages well below the level of subsistance.

    We asked these people to come here – begged and inticed them to come here, now we want to blame and punish them for showing up. Shame on all of us.

  • after reading many of these posts (across many of these topics) and various articles I have come to the conclusion that, what we call undocumented workers, illegals, undocumented pink daisies etc… they are in violation of the law…

    here are the things I do find interesting though…. (in other words things I do not see being discussed in the news or otherwise)

    1. the constitution under the powers of congress provides the following”’
    “..shall create an uniform rule to naturalization”.
    to my knowledge and understanding there is no other powers provided to the fed regarding enforcement of someone in breach of the rules of naturalization.

    2. The 10th Amend. states (paraphrasing) powers not expressly delegated to the fed and not expressly forbidding the state shall then be vested in the state and the people.

    (since # 1 does not provide the fed with the power nor does it forbid the state,, it thereby default falls to the state…)…

    3. historically (100 years or more) we had a higher ceiling on the caps placed on the number of people who could immigrate to the US.

    4. what message do we send to the people who have followed the law and waited the days, months, and years to come to this country if we continue to turn a blind eye and provide some path to legitimacy to the ones who violated the law? what message are we sending businesses here?

    forgive me, but I think we are worried that we left a pot on the stove while the house is burning…

    IMHO I think the above should be more of a discussion… as well as what other actions we can take to prevent further enticement to the working world as well as business at large…

  • Thanks to you and all of the readers who’ve drawn out that illegal immigration is a problem that we have brought upon ourselves through decades of encouragement. We are accountable first and foremost. It feels like growing up in the Deep South when friends and their parents painted anyone who was Black with the brush of laziness, justifying their stereotype with the demographics of welfare and household income in the 80’s. They were in denial that the decades of segregation and Jim Crow and slavery and general inequality across the nation that they and/or those before them had practiced (or condoned) CREATED the very demographics that they now took issue with. It’s not “their” problem when “we” are the enablers.

    “Illegal” is dehumanizing. When you refer to any person or group of people in a way that strips them of their humanity, strips them of their contributions, strips them of their culture, you’re dehumanizing them. To those who say it’s just a term of convenience and there’s no harm intended, I’ll tell you that those who long defended the use of words like [the N-word] did so with your same argument. That’s the company that you keep in making this argument. Once we become aware that our language is hurtful, if not dangerous, and we defend or continue its use anyway, that speaks more of our own lack of humanity than anything else.

  • The other side of this question is to ask “Why are so many immigrants coming into the country illegally in the first place?” The answer is that living conditions are so bad in their native countries (primarily Mexico and Central America) that they are compelled to literally risk everything to try to cross the border into the U.S. I think you can hardly blame people who are suffering now and can’t afford to wait for bureaucratic red tape to sustain their families. How do you tell your kids who are suffering today “Don’t worry, I submitted the application. I’m sure we’ll hear soon.” I wonder what each of us would do in that situation? But back to the question: Why are they coming here? When we look at living standards in Latin America we find that U.S. policies are directly responsible for much of the misery. The Green Revolution has destroyed the livelihoods of family farmers and farmworkers in Mexico while enriching agribusiness. Additionally, the U.S. has supported right-wing governments in countries throughout Central America. These governments and their associated paramilitary death squads have “disappeared” and murdered thousands of grassroots labor and community activists who have tried to fight for higher wages and better living and working conditions. And then there are the policies of U.S.-dominated groups like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank as well as NAFTA which support development strategies designed to enhance corporate profits, not the living standards of ordinary people. So our tax dollars are heavily implicated in making it impossible for people to survive in their own countries. If we want to really deal with the illegal immigration problem, we need to look at how we are driving people to need to come here in the first place.

  • illegal is just what it means in this article about the immigration influx, e,g, here in this country without the proper documentation to be here. It doesn’t matter if you’re from Mexico, Cuba, Africa, China or around the world for that matter. If you’re here in this country illegally, then the laws of illegal entry should apply just like they would in any other unlawful act. It doesn’t matter how hard you wok, and or if your services are needed within this country, following the procedures on how to be here is what’s important.

  • I was both enlightened and enraged by this article. I shudder to think that there is another motive behind this stir of negativity surrounding immigration reform. I am ashamed that anyone called American would conceive of such an attrocity. America is a land built on the backs of immigrants from all walks of life. Some were taken from their homeland but nevertheless we the people built this land. We must put reforms in place that are fair and just. We must consider the circumstances and a way to address the immigrants who are here that remain undocumented. Mass deportation or concentration camps cannot be on the table. Collaboration and solutions with our bordering neigbors must also be factored in. Sweat shops in foreign countries who produce American products have to be closed. We have to stop buying those products and bring the jobs home. I am outraged by some of the comments here because they are so black and white. I would ask you to look in the mirror because many of the “illegals” look just like you. They come from your ancestors’ homes and they are not all brown from Central and South America! Your grand and great grandparents would be ashamed of you! One thing that hasn’t been mentioned in the string are the thousands of children arriving under the guise of adoption who are really household slaves. While we’re fixing the problems, let’s add this to the list. If we keep rolling on the current course, don’t be surprised where the next bomb blasts come from. It could be anywhere because our policies give too much of the world a reason to hate us. God Bless America and may He have mercy on the small minded souls who think this is as simple as “there illegal and that’s that! I hope your numbers are few because Americans are better than this.

  • Luke,
    I wonder if your readers understand the gravity of your comment “we will not suffer the decline of an aging population like Japan and Europe are going through.” I think you are refering to the fact that the United States does not have a birth rate sufficient to sustain our culture without of our Hispanic communtiy.

  • I also find the hate-filled and small-minded spewing of bile to be rather chilling. I appreciate Luke’s examples of how to deal with such people. It has seemed obvious to me for some time now that border “issues” are mostly on our southern border. It is equally clear that it has something to do with standard of living – very similar between the US and Canada to our north, but greatly disparate between the US and Mexico to our south. In talking with my brother about this issue, he suggested the term “economic refugee” which seems just right to me. Perhaps use of this term would allow for more nuanced discussion and give another perspective to this conversation. Keeping the focus on immigration status, which is either legal or illegal, doesn’t easily lead to talk about all the many gray areas. Some might think that this is a semantic argument or (worse) “politically correct”, but I think our words are very powerful. What picture does the term “economic refugee” call to your mind? Now contrast that with your mental image of “illegal alien”. Different, right? The discussion of and solution set for issues involving economic refugees is different, too.

  • Mr. Visconti, your opinion on this topic is very one-sided and doesn’t show that you’ve looked into the problems that legal or illegal immigration brings to any country. Everything is not black and white (sorry if that’s an offensive term to you).

  • It’s funny… the only arguments here stating that there’s no offense in the term “illegal” coincide with comments about the paramount importance of “The Rule of Law”. What they fail to grasp is that it’s our idiotic laws that created this problem. It would not have been hard to issue temporary work visas when our demand for cheap labor began to ramp up in the 1990’s… oh, except then we would have had to pay the workers minimum wage. The Mexican economy was never any great shakes, but it was NAFTA that made them and the rest of Central American have to compete directly with the USA, which inevitably was going to lead to great influxes of labor across the border. The same thing has happened in the EU… all the construction workers in Germany are Polish, Hungarian, etc.
    The comment about Japan/Europe, etc. is really the only one that matters. Consumer spending makes up about 75% of our economy, and cannot function without an ever-increasing number of people who provide labor, AND create demand for goods and services. Immigration is the ONLY possible way to save Medicare and Social Security, as birth rates currently won’t support our entitlements. We don’t currently issue enough visas to allow enough immigrants to enter in order to finance these and other entitlements, which means the law FAILED. To fall back on “you have to obey the law” now is ludicrous. Controlling the border is one issue (militarizing it is not necessarily a good answer, unless you like lots of dead bodies), but the whole idea that we can deport 11 million+ people is just, frankly, stupid. We would lose uncountable tax revenue, the deportation costs would be unfathomable, and it’s a violation of international law to split up parents and children via deportation proceedings (a law I’m inclined to agree with).
    And for those who draw comparisons to cultural clashes between Arab, Turkish, and N. African immigrants in Europe… that’s the best thing about America: you move here, you have some kids, those kids go to college, speak English, put on a suit, and go to work…. and THOSE kids, we all call Americans, regardless. America’s ability to integrate into our culture, while people still retain some of the traditions and cultural attributes of their home country is what truly makes this country great. In opposition to our way of doing things, there are 3rd generation people of Turkish descent living in Germany who still aren’t German citizens. America’s willingness to integrate everyone into our social and economic fabric is the only advantage we have against the new state-controlled free-market economy of China; I highly suggest embracing it. Especially if you plan on retiring any time soon, and want SSI or Medicare.

  • I have a somewhat different take on this. I know several families who are undocumented–and they are not all from Mexico. These are honest hard-working people who work long hours and live in substandard conditions, sending money home to support their families. They are much more like my dirt-poor Irish ancestors who came to this country to do jobs no one else wanted to do than we modern Americans are. What’s happening now is that those who looked the other way when they were profitable, are now talking law enforcement.

  • Excellent comment by the guest who coined the term “economic refugee”. I think it will catch on.

  • Luke,

    Great article as always.

    You say this: “Regarding Spanish – I don’t think it’s a bad thing for taxpayers to fund English as a Second Language schools. The benefits of increased productivity and a more cohesive society would more than offset the expense.”

    It is an excellent idea for American high school students to seriously buckle down and learn Spanish well. I speak Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese fluently and let me tell you: I have access to an abundance of business partners in the Latino community here and around the world.

    A prediction for you all: Spanish will become the “business vernacular” within the United States.

    The Roman empire manifested a similar linguistic dynamic. I cannot recall exactly which one, but, one of the largest immigrant groups to the Roman empire brought with it a language that took root within the Empire and among her citizens. This language was learned and spoken by many Romans who in turn created commerce and trade with that immigrant group.

    Now, fast forward thousands of years, and look at America: here we are. By 2050, the population of Spanish speakers in America will be around 40%, according to US Census data.

    My advice to monolingual America is to learn Spanish or begin to feel very, very left out of conversations and possibly business transactions.

    I know that I am not ashamed of being multilingual, nor do I think I am better than anyone else. I was indeed a bit miffed when in the recent movie Robin Hood, with Russel Crow, the multilingual character was portrayed as a spying, thieving, conniving jerk.

    The take-away here is multifaceted: do not be afraid of people from other lands or cultures; learning another language does not make you a traitor; not knowing another language does not make you stupid or less-than; learning a language creates an appreciation for diversity that diversity training cannot, meaning that when you take on another culture’s language, you take on a tiny bit of the culture as well.

    Remember: languages are LESS like codes for one another and more like distinct personalities and ways of being.

    -A Teacher

  • You’re a idiot. Everything’s a conspiracy to you, and words mean what you want them to mean, Illegal alien is exactly the right term, and enforcement of the law is the basis of our society. Period. Full stop. Print it. It’s pinheads like you who make childish arguments like this that have gotten us into the mess we’re in now.

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