The language of reform

February 10, 2013 

I want to see the faces behind the national debate on immigration reform. I want to hear the voices of those who are dramatically affected by the talk of others. I want to feel the hands and acknowledge the strong backs of those who work in the darkness of our nation's fields, hotels, restaurants and construction sites.

The national immigration debate lacks compassion as we struggle defining the character of these millions. How we label "them" will determine whether they belong here and are part of America.

Aliens. Illegals. So long as we limit our language to these terms, we deny the humanity of millions. Undocumented. Unauthorized. Pick your terms wisely; your decision will determine how you frame the debate.

Imagine if, instead of politicians, we employed wordsmiths -- those who work with words daily -- to help guide us in discussing immigration reform. Imagine if we used a poem to begin each debate session. Our own type of blessing.

*****

"Everyday we get

more illegal

Yet the peach tree still

rises & falls

Husband deported

with the son

The wife & the daughter

who married a citizen

They stay behind broken slashed unpowdered

In the apartment to deal out the day & the puzzles

Another law then another"

-- Juan Felipe Herrera

We choose the words that define the discussion. If we begin with the term aliens and illegals, then the public policy is fairly straightforward. "They" don't belong here and should be deported. "They" broke the law. There is no debate, no dialogue.

(I once saw a cartoon depicting Native Americans watching the Pilgrims arrive. The caption read, "We're being invaded by illegals.")

The word aliens can overshadow other terms that are just as valid. Worker. Steady hand. Helper. Laborer. Illegal provides us the cover to ignore the words we could very well use. Parent. Child.

Neighbor. Friend.

My grandparents came from Japan a century ago. They were classified as aliens. They were here legitimately, but at times, that meant little. They were barred by California's racist Alien Land Laws that specifically targeted Asians and prevented my grandparents from owning land. They were legal enough to work in the fields and be a second-class citizen without the right to own land.

This eventually led to court cases: Who is considered an "Asian"? For example, at the same time in California, Armenians were immigrating to the rich farmland of our Valley. Were they from Eurasia -- and considered more Asian than European? The courts ruled and legal terminology was imposed: Armenians were defined as "white Asians" and could own land. Language defined your identity and place in America.

*****

"I saw almond orchards, plums and raisins spread out on paper trays,

and acres of Mendota cotton my mother picked as a child.

I wanted my own history--not the earth's,

nor the history of blood,

nor of memory,

and not the job found for

me at Galdini Sausage"

-- David Dominguez

I want to impose a history on the immigration debate, one that defines immigrants as people. Typically, politics has a way of dehumanizing immigrants.

I can hear the slogans of the past. A nativist movement in the 1850s targeted German and Irish Catholics, calling these new immigrants "white Negroes," depicting them as subhuman. "Yellow Peril" was used by the Hearst newspapers to drum up anti-Asian immigration policies in the early 1900s. Zoot suit riots in the 1940s pitted whites against Mexican-Americans in Los Angeles. There were claims that Chicano youth were overly flamboyant and disloyal to wartime sacrifices -- clothes defined who was a patriot and American.

What's missing are the real voices of those most affected: the immigrants themselves. Their real experiences are buried behind the term aliens. How can they come forward and step into the light when already defined as illegal?

We can humanize the debate with personal stories and a historical perspective. The public has too often demonized immigrants, stripped them of voices, pushing them into the shadows.

What do immigrants want? I believe they simply want to belong. But they can't control the language that defines them.

So how do "we" label "them"? By claiming they are unauthorized immigrants levels the playing field. It properly reframes the debate: This is a question about granting the authority to reform immigration policies.

*****

"To say, let me in from the cold

To touch another hand

and see the cracks

of its own worth"

-- Marisol Baca

The process of becoming American is never easy. That's why we value it so much. I hope we recognize this is not like a trade tariff debate nor is it a judgment of moral character. We are talking about humans and the immigrant experience that the vast majority of us carry in the baggage of our own family histories.

This all explains precisely why this is so emotional. And why the language of poetry belongs in this debate.

Thanks to the following poets for their words. Juan Felipe Herrera, professor at UC Riverside, California poet laureate; David Dominguez, faculty, Reedley College; Marisol Baca, faculty, Fresno City College.

Award-winning author and organic farmer David Mas Masumoto of Del Rey writes about the San Joaquin Valley and its people. Send email to him at masmasumoto@gmail.com.

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