Disrespecting Undocumented Immigrants

05/12/2011 03:04 pm ET | Updated Jul 12, 2011

Must we dump on undocumented immigrants whenever we talk about comprehensive immigration reform? President Obama's El Paso speech on the need for comprehensive reform on Tuesday was an important call to action and a challenge to policy makers -- Republicans and Democrats alike. However, in the process of acknowledging the important contributions of undocumented immigrants, he fell into the trap of chastising the community, perpetuating a pejorative image of migrants as lawbreakers and revealing little understanding of the forces that have driven them across our borders. The president (like so many people and media outlets) also continued to demean our fellow human beings by referring to them as "illegal":

"Regardless of how [undocumented immigrants] came, the overwhelming majority of these folks are just trying to earn a living and provide for their families.

But we have to acknowledge they've broken the rules. They've cut in front of the line. And what is also true is that the presence of so many illegal immigrants makes a mockery of all those who are trying to immigrate legally."

Once we understand why undocumented immigrants cannot find work back home, I think we would be a little bit more forgiving about their "cutting" in line, and I think we also would be a little more respectful when we discuss them.

Consider undocumented Mexicans. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was supposed to fix the challenge by stimulating economic development in Mexico, thereby creating jobs. But NAFTA failed miserably. Federal subsidies to U.S. farmers helped to undercut agriculture in Mexico, creating millions of unemployed Mexican farm workers who look for work in the United States. Mexico's domestic manufacturing sector also shed tons of jobs (prior to the global recession), as the U.S. encouraged China and other low-wage worker countries to enter the World Trade Organization and other trade compacts. Now Mexico competes with other such countries for U.S. markets and runs a trade deficit with China, mimicking the U.S. conundrum but with few resources to confront the problem alone. So the fact that Mexico has faced job creation challenges under the NAFTA manufacturing model is even more troubling when placed in the context of the worldwide framework that the U.S. has helped to construct.

Before and after the speech, the president has been calling on immigrant communities and their allies to aid in educating the American public on the need and the logical basis for supporting comprehensive reform that would include the opportunity for undocumented immigrants to live and work in the United States legally.

Part of the education needs to include the use of respectful language.

The undocumented population consists of human beings living in the United States who are treated as if they should not exist -- shoved aside in schools and hospitals, exploited on jobs and demeaned by both our government and our culture. Each of those people is tied to a family and a community, and all of those families are dehumanized by the language of "illegality." The i-word slur not only justifies counterproductive immigration policy, it invites violence and stigmatizes people. Keep in mind that 85 percent of immigrant households are comprised of people with both undocumented and citizen status. That's why we should all endorse the "Drop the I-Word" campaign of the Applied Research Center; as the saying goes, "no human being is illegal."

In his El Paso speech, President Obama extolled the economic contributions of all immigrants. Fine, except that calling for immigration reforms that would benefit the undocumented population tends to fall into the pitfall of viewing migration purely in terms of filling the employment needs of U.S. businesses or emphasizing the economic boon that immigrants represent to the United States. This is an alluring approach that caters to economic concerns that apparently matter a great deal to the public's attitude toward immigration. Yet when we focus purely on the economic well-being of the country in judging immigration, we miss an opportunity to make a bold statement on immigration and to re-frame the debate in a manner that can demonstrate our humanity.

I am convinced that the vast majority of Americans, if given the choice, would not endorse the mistreatment of immigrants -- documented or undocumented. If Americans understood the impact of NAFTA and globalization on Mexico, they would recognize the need to work with Mexico as a regional partner with much for both parties to gain. As American culture, economic influence, political power and military presence affect the far reaches of the globe, we should not be too surprised at the attraction that the United States holds throughout the world. Coupled with the ubiquity of American culture, the United States appeals to would-be immigrants and refugees who seek the American dream of freedom, prosperity and consumerism. Migrant workers, refugees, high-tech workers, multinational executives and family members all respond to this attraction. When it comes to Mexico, we need to add the ingredients of history, tradition and the factor of economic globalization that controls the lives of workers. Mexico is an ally, not an enemy. Let's open our eyes, and be a little more understanding and respectful.