How To Speak With Respect and Dignity About Undocumented Immigrants and Their Experiences

Undocumented Immigrants BELatina Latinx
Photo is courtesy of BELatina.

It is hard to believe we still live in a time where people are considered and referred to as “illegal” individuals. 

I remember how while growing up, I would check my family member’s papers out of curiosity and see the term “alien” next to their names. Aliens are extra-terrestrial creatures that may (or may not) live on other planets. Once I understood the word was a way to categorize someone I knew, I was shocked and confused. I remember asking myself, “‘Illegal’ to or for what? What does ‘alien’ mean? Is that an adult term?” 

As an adult, the confusion has been replaced with frustration towards the categorization and how the government handles this everlasting, polarizing issue.

Only last month, when I called the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services multiple times, some agents referred to one of my family member’s case number as the now more commonly used “A” number. Others still referred to it as the insensitive 1940s-termAlien Registration Number.” 

Aren’t we collectively supposed to override these derogatory terms? I guess their agents are not all on the same page, but the bottom line is that no human should even be considered “illegal.” No human should be labeled as an “alien.” Where’d this idea even come from? How can we address this issue with the respect and dignity it deserves? And most importantly, what can we do to help?

Furthermore, how do we talk about undocumented folks and their experiences without derogatory language? 

“Lead conversations with compassion and awareness of how heavy the topic can be,” co-owner of Adelita’s Apparel Atziri Peña explains about their personal experiences. “Being undocumented in the U.S. comes with lots of fears, and when wanting to have a conversation, we have to be aware and prepared for how heavy that can be for us. Allow us to own our narratives and speak about our situation without trying to tell us how we should feel. Our status can sometimes make us feel like there is no light at the end of the tunnel, and it is invalidating to hear people tell us that it will be okay and/or that this year is the year that we will finally have any kind of immigration reform.” 

It’s disheartening that we have yet to hear further news on the immigration reform bill that President Joe Biden promised during his presidential term. One of the crucial elements of this bill was to create “an eight-year path to citizenship for most of the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States as of Jan. 1.,” as reported by The New York Times. Well, Jan. 2022 came and went, and we have yet to hear any type of update on the idea that helped him get elected. What happened, Mr. President?

While these bills are out of our immediate control, what we can do (or make sure we’re doing) is learn how to talk to our undocumented community; about the dos and don’ts when it comes to language. “When referring to someone who is undocumented, you should always use the term ‘undocumented’ or ‘undocumented immigrant.’ There are undocumented people who use the term ‘illegal’ to refer to themselves, but that term should only be used by that said person. I want to note that if you come across someone undocumented who does call themselves ‘illegal,’ don’t tell them not to. Being undocumented means being targeted and criminalized, and, for some of us, the term ‘illegal’ is a term that best fits the reality of how our community is treated,” Peña tells BELatina News.

Additionally, we could help by uplifting our undocumented community in the meantime — sharing every door that we could potentially open for them. “Support, employ, and uplift undocumented people! There are so many amazing undocumented artists, activists, shops that you can support. If you want to talk about our undocumented community, find people who are open and willing to have such conversations. Build us worlds and spaces where we can live freely instead of building us borders in our literature,” Peña advises.

It’s the least we can do: uplift our communities and pay attention to how they move to help in any way possible. While we wait for our government to give us more insight on what’s to happen on a huge scale, we can help with what’s in our reach to care for our undocumented community who needs it the most.

At the end of the day, we are all here to help each other out.

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