Wednesday, March 29, 2006

As the debate over immigrant laborers rages in the country right now, I find myself in the middle of it down here. Well, at least for the moment. I have become the unofficially official "diversity" reporter at the SunHerald. What that actually means is that I'm supposed to keep up with and write about issues involving the Vietnamese and Latinos on Mississippi's Gulf Coast.
Anyways, after a string of disturbing interactions with locals over my new beat, the following exchange occured.
I will refrain from expressing my true and complete beliefs on this whole thing, (your welcome Keller) because my employers may read this, but I will say this: being of half-Jewish ancestry, I have a hard time refering to a human being as "illegal."

First, I've got here a link to the story that started this all.
Second, I've got the letter I sent out to the newsroom, in addition to an email that I got in response to the linked story. As much as I'd like to do the opposite, I removed all parts of the email that might identify the sender.
I'd like to hear what you all think about all of this.

The story:

The letter:

Hi All,
I have received numerous disturbing responses to my articles on
immigrant laborers in the last few months in person, on the phone and
via email.
Attached is the second email of this nature I have received in response
to my article on immigrant laborers that ran today.
The other email I got simply attacked me personally, but this one
actually raises a point on word usage that we will all probably have to
deal with before long in our work and will certainly be dealing with in
It is the question over how to refer to someone who has entered the
country without documentation to live or work and has still not received
official clearance to live or work.
As the writer of this email so astutely points out, there are basically
two ways to refer to them: as "illegal aliens" or "undocumented
The reason I always refer to them as "undocumented workers" has to do
with the fact that a human being cannot be "illegal."
It is not off-base to call immigrants "aliens" by the ultimate
definition of the word, which is someone or something for somewhere
else. It simply carries with it a connotation that is obviously
negative, and, for some reason, the word "alien" only gets attached to
Latinos these days, not European, Asian, African and Middle Eastern
Laws do not govern the state of a person, rather, they govern a person's
actions. Laws do not consider the existential nature of man, they simply
say what you can or cannot do.
Hence why the state of Texas came up with the since struck-down and
now-infamous "sodomy laws" that made the acts that homosexual people may
or may not commit illegal and not the state of being homosexual illegal.
While the Texas legislatute would have liked to have proposed Nazi-esqe
laws making a person lawbreaking simply for BEING what they are, it is
impossible to do under modern, humane law creating restrictions, and for
good reason.
My point is, the prevalence of hostile and racist responses I've been
getting about my stories on Latino immigrants makes me uncomfortably
feel like I need to ask you all to think a little harder about how you
refer to them.
Again, it is illegal to enter this country without documentation and it
is illegal to work without a working visa, but it is NOT illegal to BE
from somewhere else, which is what the phrase "illegal alien" implies.
I have had to catch myself several times in conversation to not let the
phrase "illegal aliens" slip out, because it has been so commonly used
for so long.
But since the debate over immigrant laborers is raging right now, and
since there seems to be a segment of society in South Mississippi still
grossly misinformed about and hostily unreceptive towards the presence
of a group of people making the cleanup and recovery more possible, I
feel like we all need to think a little harder about how we refer to
Thanks for listening.

To: Subject: LRe: "A Tale Of Workers In A Strange Land" Sent: Wednesday, March 29, 2006 11:55 AM

These people are not "Undocumented Workers" but rather "Illegal Aliens" -- something that journalists just can't seem to get their lips to utter.
They violated our laws to get here -- that makes them ILLEGAL! They are nothing more than "gate-crashers".

Please use proper terminology when printing stories to be digested by the public.

(a guy from)


Blogger The Fergoosons said...

Growing up in California, when produce and orange groves were still in existence and in great proporations, providing our country with grown in U.S.A products, a great many of the jobs in these areas were held by Hispanics, not only because they would work for less money, but because they were the ones that didn't mind "getting their hands dirty". I agree the word "Illegal" should not be used for hard working humans, it should be reserved for the terrorists that walk into this country and are welcomed in our schools and communities and then use it against us by killing innocent people and providing drugs to our children. Thanks again Josh and Mike for taking time out of your day to continue to post your stories and thoughts here. I will always be indebted to you for giving me some peace when I didn't hear from my brother for 3 days after Katrina. There has to be a way to get the word out that Biloxi and the surrounding areas are still in such bad shape...this should not be this way!!!

6:14 AM  
Blogger Chuck said...

Hey Josh...

Just wanted you to know that I enjoy your blog immensely, and your writings in the Sun-Herald.
My name is Chuck, and I grew up in Bloomfield, New Jersey - I noticed that you're originally from Montclair - small world.

I've taken three trips to Biloxi, Gulfport, and New Orleans last year to help out in the relief effort with my church (outside of Chicago), and that's why I've appreciated your writings so much.

Anyway, I'm working on a book - stories of people we were able to help merged with how the experiences changed the way I look at the world now - and I'm heading back down next week, Monday afternoon through Thursday morning.
It's a quick trip, but I just needed to get back there to try and follow up with some folks, as well as trying to wrap my head around the whole scene again.

Any chance of meeting up with you for a few?
The beer or coffee is on me...

Let me know - if not, that's cool too...keep writing...

My blog is at:

4:55 PM  
Anonymous matthew ladner said...

Hey Josh, I need to ask you a question about the paper. Could you shoot me an e-mail as soon as you read this.

-matthew ladner

8:20 AM  
Blogger Sarabeth said...

Your use of the term 'undocumented worker' is proper terminology in your story.

I agree that using the word 'alien' is inappropriate.

Is the term illegal immigrant okay? To me that is the best term as undocumented worker implies that the person is working, which may not always be true. Using the term illegal immigrant describes the person accurately--an immigrant who arrived here illegally.

5:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with the others that "illegal aliens" is a derogatory term. Unfortunately people in our government want to create laws without thinking about the people that will be impacted, and will used those terms. Sarabeth uses a term that is slightly better - illegal immigrant - but I think the term "undocumented worker" best desribes the person and the situation. Most people who enter the U.S. unlawfully do it for a better job, a better way of life. My parents moved here the legal way, but it wasn't easy.

Thank you for your position on the issue. I'm glad to see the conversations still flowing from your blog and the storms.


8:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

After grad school I stayed in the US with a job offer. I will soon become known as the "principal" alien; my "domestic partner" (back home she's my wife) becomes the "dependent" alien. If all goes well she'll get a "derivative status" with a discretionary visa under NAFTA, allowing her to pay foreign-student fees to attend school here while I work -- so long as we don't either of us apply for residency (e.i. we get to pay all local, state and federal taxes, but can't vote. Plus, under the patriot act, we can now be detained for up to a year without charge). All that to say being a fully documented/legal foreign national here can be equally insulting.

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