Over the last year, a number of public figures have drawn praise and ire for referring to the facilities in which tens of thousands of people are being imprisoned by the United States without due process as concentration camps.
What has resulted is a “rhetorical cacophony regarding historical accuracy and proper terminology,” in the words of Lauren Duca of The Independent.
If, like me, you believe that language not only describes but creates reality, the primary question should not be “what is the correct definition of concentration camp and is that definition being accurately applied?” but rather “how am I morally obligated to describe and respond to what is happening at the U.S.-Mexico border?”
The five practices below are designed to help you use language to humanize in the face of dehumanization and practice liberation in the face of violence and hate. But first, some context.
The power of language to dehumanize
“The illegals.” “Illegal aliens.” “Criminal aliens.” “These aren’t people, these are animals.” “Monstrous.” “Shithole countries.” “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” “Criminals.” “Monsters.” —Trump
Dehumanization is a specific psychological process in which people are conditioned to perceive members of a target group as undeserving of basic human rights, and dehumanization is rooted in language—in the stories that we hear and tell about each other.
Journalist and historian Anne Applebaum has written powerfully about the fact that the groundwork for mass murder of citizens by their own government for political reasons is always “originally laid by a very particular way of using language”: first, inflammatory language is used to define and stereotype the target group and next the group is demonized and dehumanized through propaganda.
Hitler and Stalin described their target groups as “vermin” and “poisonous weeds” and Nazi propaganda depicted Jews as lice and rats. The ruling Hutu party described Tutsis as “cockroaches“ and “snakes” during the Rwandan genocide. The Khmer Rouge painted the victims of the Cambodian genocide as “worms” and “parasites.”
Historian Andrea Pitzer has pointed out that “you don’t have to intend to kill everyone to have really bad outcomes.” Regardless of the current intent of the U.S. government, it is following a pattern of dehumanization that is a hallmark of this country’s history, where Indigenous peoples are described as “savages” in the Declaration of Independence itself; Black people have been painted as animals (“stock,” “brutes,” “apes,” and worse) over centuries of enslavement, lynching, and mass incarceration; and the majority of immigrant groups of particular ethnicities have been denigrated through language until such time as they managed to assimilate into whiteness, for those that could.
This language matters. It conditions people who hear it to look the other way when those who are described in less-than-human ways suffer or, worse, to directly contribute to injustices themselves. In 1975, researchers at Stanford found that students who overheard experimenters describe fellow students as animals were more likely to give them what they thought were increased levels of electric shock. In 2008, researchers found that over a 20-year period, Black defendants convicted of capital crimes in Philadelphia were more likely to receive the death penalty when they were described in ape-like ways in the press.
Today, Trump continually and intentionally conflates MS-13 gang members with everyone who enters the U.S. from Mexico—unauthorized immigrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers alike. He and his followers are working to alter the very meaning of the word immigrant to be synonymous with illegal and criminal and dangerous and Latinx. (This rhetoric goes hand-in-hand with the intentional conflation of Muslim and Middle Eastern with terrorism.) In the words of Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and activist Jose Antonio Vargas:
The right has been so good at using language as a weapon. We have gotten to the point where even legal immigration is a dirty word for people. That’s how successful they’ve been. … [They’ve] created this entire linguistic parallel reality that is framed by the language they use.
Last year, the U.S. Department of Justice explicitly instructed U.S. attorneys to use the term illegal alien and not use undocumented immigrant. Meanwhile, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services changed its mission statement online, removing a passage that had previously described the United States as “a nation of immigrants.”
This anti-immigrant rhetoric has resulted in an increase in hate violence against immigrants and people perceived as immigrants—for example, in the two weeks after the 2016 presidential election, reported hate crimes against Latinx people increased by 176%. It also has conditioned everyone from ICE agents to everyday folk to accept atrocities committed against people who have been classified as illegal.
The power of language to justify atrocities
“An invasion of our country.” “[Democrats] want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our country.” “We have an invasion of drugs, invasion of gangs, invasion of people.” “Illegal immigration onslaught.”
“Nearly 180,000 illegal immigrants with criminal records … are tonight roaming free to threaten peaceful citizens.” “They have violently overrun the Mexican border.” “An assault on our country.” “It’s like a war. It’s like a war zone.”
“The Democratic Party is openly encouraging millions of illegal aliens to break our laws, violate our borders, and overwhelm our nation. … The Democrats have launched an assault on the sovereignty of our country, the security of our nation, and the safety of every single American.” —Trump
Once a particular group of people has been dehumanized, mistreating them is a much simpler affair, but it takes an even more aggressive form of rhetoric to justify militarizing the border, imprisoning thousands of people without trial, separating families, and conducting raids. The actions of the U.S. government toward the civilians seeking to enter the country from the south constitute a military endeavor, so immigrants have to be portrayed not only as criminal and dangerous and undeserving of rights but also as a profound threat to the country, worthy of military action. In the words of historian Jonathan Hyslop:
It’s important here to look at the language that people are using. As soon as you get people comparing other groups to animals or insects, or using language about advancing hordes, and we’re being overrun and flooded and this sort of thing, it’s creating the sense of this enormous threat. And that makes it much easier to sell people on the idea we’ve got to do something drastic to control this population which going to destroy us.
Fear is the most important tool in Trump’s linguistic arsenal. Many pundits have argued that xenophobia—particularly a unique combination of anti-Muslim and anti-Latinx immigrant sentiments—provided the backbone of Trump’s election campaign, and now he’s working toward reelection on the same platform.
Trump is determined to keep stoking fear of an “invasion” of dangerous “criminals” and he’s also determined to be seen as doing something about it—as evidenced by his obsession with “the wall,” last year’s “zero tolerance” family separation policy intentionally designed to deter immigration, his trumped-up national emergency, and his most recent ICE raids. (He will also take any opportunity to direct dehumanizing energy toward Muslims, as evidenced by his “Muslim Ban” and continual attacks against Rep. Ilhan Omar.)
People who are incensed by or dismissive of those who are raising the alarm by using the term “concentration camps” are not just defending Trump and ICE and other agents of destruction, they are defending themselves and their own culpability in the horrors that are occurring in the so-called land of the free. How many people have to die and lives have to be destroyed before it’s worth taking action? Make no mistake: the current trajectory is one of increasingly unspeakable atrocities. In this moment, we must resist—and part of our resistance must be countering dehumanization through language.
The moral obligation to use language to respond to injustice: 5 practices
Our language choices can’t be made in isolation; they must respond to the larger context we find ourselves in—in this case, the context discussed above. There is no singular “correct” way to describe what’s going on and the people who suffering and, in too many cases, dying. But there are things all of us can—and must—do to take action and refuse to be complicit.
1. Drop the I-Word. No human being is illegal.
In 2010, Race Forward, in partnership with Presente.org, the National Hispanic Media Coalition, Define American, and others, started the Drop the I-Word campaign to get mainstream media to stop using the word illegal in the context of immigration. In response, in 2013 the Associated Press revised its stylebook—the most influential guide for U.S. media outlets—directing writers to never use illegal to refer to people, to not describe people as violating immigration laws without attribution, and additional guidance.
Although AP style allows for the use of illegal to refer to actions (as in illegal immigration), the larger context of anti-immigrant voices painting illegal immigration as justification for the revocation of human rights means that using this term plays into anti-immigrant narratives. The use of the word illegal in any way contributes to the dehumanization of immigrants, communicates criminality (often erroneously), and erases the many nuances involved in how (and whether) people have ended up outside the law.
In its Words Matter fact sheet, Define American points out that “phrases such as ‘illegal immigrant’ and ‘illegal alien’ replace complex and ever-changing legal circumstances with an unspecified assumption of guilt.”
So instead of using the word illegal in any way, try these alternatives: immigrants without papers, unauthorized immigrants, undocumented Americans, people who have entered the United States without permission, those living in the country without legal permission, noncitizens, non-status immigrants.
2. Create linguistic space for refugees and asylum-seekers.
When immigrant and migrant (with or without additional adjectives, such as illegal or undocumented) are used as umbrella terms for everyone who crosses the U.S. southern border for any reason, this invisibilizes refugees and asylum-seekers (learn the difference and the history). Asylum-seekers who present themselves at the border or surrender themselves to authorities after crossing the border have done nothing against the law.
In 2017, AP added guidance along these lines to its stylebook, adding definitions for asylum-seeker, refugee, and migrant. Although AP style allows the use of migrant to refer to people whose reason for leaving their country of origin is unclear and who may be refugees or asylum-seekers, it notes that “other terms are strongly preferred: people struggling to enter Europe, Cubans seeking new lives in the United States.”
3. Do not use criminalizing or inflammatory language.
In addition to illegal, a whole host of terms are being weaponized to paint people of color without papers as criminal and/or a threat. Terms like chain migration, anchor baby, amnesty, and merit-based immigration reform are coded language and are almost never used to describe white immigrants.
It’s also worth avoiding detainee. From Freedom for Immigrants:
When describing someone who is currently detained, we believe that “detained immigrant/person” or “person in immigration detention” are the best terms, insofar as the discussion is actually related to their detention. Dehumanizing language like “detainee” serves only to reinforce the stripping of people in detention of their fundamental human rights
It’s also important to be extra mindful of the sorts of descriptive language you use, and not play into portrayals of immigrants themselves as a threat. There’s no question that the current U.S. systems for immigration and asylum are dysfunctional and overburdened, but the fault lies squarely with the U.S. government, not the people who are being subjected to those systems. Language such as hordes, unending wave, flood, rag-tag army, and verbs such as overrun, pouring in, overwhelm, and invade perpetuate the false narrative that immigrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers are a threat.
Finally, resist the common pitfall of buying into the polarized narrative of “good” versus “bad” immigrants: innocent and/or hard-working and/or over-achieving immigrants who deserve human rights as contrasted with those who have a criminal record, who somehow don’t.
4. Resist euphemistic language and “spin.”
It is brazen to call the facilities in which immigrants and asylum-seekers are being confined “shelters,” but that is one of many euphemistic terms being used by the U.S. government: “temporary emergency influx shelters,” “federal migrant shelters,” “migrant centers,” “family residential centers,” “processing centers,” and, many have argued, “detention centers.”
The hubbub over whether or not it’s appropriate to call these facilities “concentration camps” has obscured the central issue: that whatever your feelings about “concentration camp” (check out recent pieces by Anna Lind-Guzik and Jack Holmes for essential reading on this topic), “detention center” and other terms are being used as euphemisms to mask the reality of inhumane treatment. The people confined in these places call them la perrera (the kennel or dog pound) and pinche cárcel (a fucking prison).
Carlos Hidalgo and Sylvester Owino, both of whom were incarcerated in so-called detention centers for years, launched a campaign to get mainstream media to start saying “immigrant prisons” instead. Jorge Rivas tells their story in the powerful piece “‘Immigrant Detention Center’ Is Just a Nice Way to Say ‘Prison.’” Freedom for Immigrants shares:
When referring to the actual facilities in the United States that confine immigrants, our organization uses the terms “immigrant prison” and “immigrant jail.” In the U.S. context, most facilities are either literal prisons run by private prison companies or county jails that contract with ICE. There are only a handful of government-run facilities, but they also look and feel like a prison.
Some creative options include using a mix of “concentration camps,” “federally-run and private-prison-run detention centers,” and “immigration detention facilities,” a practice Mijente used in a recent piece, “jails and prison-like facilities,” as the Global Detention Project has written, and “so-called detention centers.”
Another important way to resist euphemistic language and speak truth is by way of the verbs you use. Legally, people are being detained. But language such as “being held for more than seventy-two hours,” “during their stay in a detention center,” and “housed in residential centers” does not do justice to reality. Verbs such as confined, imprisoned, incarcerated, and locked up more accurately describe the experiences of those inside.
5. Center the humanity and voices of those most impacted.
In the context of immense dehumanization, people of conscience need to go out of our way to counter it and practice re-humanization. This requires centering the humanity and the voices of those who are directly impacted by the United States’ immigration and deportation system. As Mónica Novoa, one of the leaders of the Drop the I-Word campaign, put it:
We have to listen to directly impacted people who are the experts on how they want their humanity and conditions described, and how they want to make justice.
When writing and talking about immigrant communities, take the time to use more words and be more descriptive. Because the very word immigrant has become a tool of dehumanization, using more descriptive language (for example, “Gabriela is a grandmother of four from Honduras,” “Sergio, who is 8, is trying to reunite with his father, who lives in northern California,” “people seeking refuge in the United States,” “people who came here to get an education and have overstayed their visas”) can bring folks’ humanity back to the center.
The U.S. public is caught in a trap of binary, one-dimensional depictions of the people ensnared in the U.S. immigration system as either criminals or victims. Neither narrative is the one we need. Christina Fialho and Christina Mansfield, co-founders of Freedom for Immigrants, powerfully argue that when journalists and advocates “dramatize the pain and suffering of people in immigration detention to promote reform or abolition” they perpetuate a self-defeating story in which migrants are passive victims in need of saving instead of full human beings and resilient and powerful agents of change.
Freedom for Immigrants advocates for “solutions-based” storytelling instead, which “goes beyond sensationalism to tell the stories of actors who are addressing society’s biggest challenges.” This approach makes a bigger impact and also re-centers the humanity and agency of the people fighting for their dignity and lives.
It’s also essential to create space for first-person stories by those who are directly impacted. So many stories about immigration detention privilege the voices of “experts” (policy, academic, and advocacy professionals) over the voices of the people being detained and/or deported—who are the real experts on their own experiences. If you are a storyteller, leverage your platform to create space for people in detention and their families to tell their own stories. If you are a story consumer, seek out first-person stories. For example, check out the blog IMM Print, the podcast Indefensible, the Voices from Detention series, the Queering Immigration Podcast, and the storytelling projects from Freedom for Immigrants.
Stay fired up and take action
For more resources on language and immigration justice, check out:
- Words Matter fact sheet from Define American
- Journalist Style Guide from Drop the I-Word
- Glossary and terminology from Freedom for Immigrants
- Immigrant Detention in the Media, a 2017 report from Freedom for Immigrants
- Covering LGBTQ Immigration Issues from GLAAD
Take action in additional ways:
- Contribute to bond funds that free people from detention while their cases are decided, such as the Freedom for Immigrants National Bond Fund and the LGBTQ Freedom Fund
- Donate to organizations that build power by and for most-impacted communities, such as Mijente and Puente
- Sign up to sponsor or host asylum-seekers through the Asylum Sponsorship Project or the Sante Fe Dreamers Project, which is seeking sponsors for trans women
- Volunteer with advocacy organizations, such as serving as a child advocate through the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights or becoming a remote lifeline operator through Detention Lifeline
- Follow, amplify, and participate in actions like #DefundHate and #NoBusinessWithICE
Do you have additional guidance or thoughts to add? Did I miss something or get something wrong? Please comment below!
If this post was helpful to you, please show your appreciation by making a donation to one of the organizations linked above.
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