Opinion: In Debate, Candidates Used the 'l' Word 13 Times Too Many

Tuesday night’s presidential debate filled me with a feeling of uncertainty that remains with me today. On screen, I watched both presidential candidates trade awkward blow after blow, dancing around incredibly important issues in two-minute soliloquies.

I’ve grown a thick skin over the years as I’ve read countless blogs and articles that referred to me as an “illegal,” to the point that negative portrayals and labels no longer bother me on a personal level. But watching both presidential candidates use the term to describe people like me during the course of this nationwide televised event was devastating.

In a matter of 5-6 minutes, Romney used the “I” word a dozen times. Obama used it once. That’s 13 times too many for a presidential debate, in my opinion.

We are blamed for the downward spiral of American culture. We are berated for having dreams, as if U.S. citizens have the market cornered for dreaming big.

— Jesús Iñiguez

Much has been said and debated about this term. Journalists have relayed their professional opinions, linguists have chimed in, even judges and lawyers have published legal opinions discussing whether the term “illegal” is accurate when speaking about undocumented people. But missing in this debate is the voice of undocumented people, like myself. While reporters, bloggers, tea partiers, liberals, lawyers, and presidential candidates debate over our political fate and what term best describes our situation, our undocumented voices are ignored and silenced. To see and hear the two top contenders duke it out for votes for the most powerful political position in the world for the next four years, while referring to people like me as “illegal” (or “undocumented illegals” as Romney eloquently stated), disillusioned me.

For me, this means that my dehumanization and that of members of my community is deeply entrenched in our society. Most people in this country are blatantly ignorant to the devastating impact that dehumanizing immigrants has had for millions of people. Growing up without papers in this country, I was reminded everyday that I had very limited opportunities past high school, and that my family and I could be deported any day. This experience of psychological trauma is something that nobody should undergo.

We don’t refer to jaywalkers, public nudist, people pulled over for traffic violations. So why do we continue to insist on calling immigrants without proper documentation as "illegal?" The answer is simple: there are 11 million undocumented people in this nation who are convenient scapegoats for the ills of our society. Most of us are faithful workers who desire nothing more than to care for our own families. That is why I strongly support the efforts of Presente.org and other organizations in pushing to have media outlets drop the use of the word “illegal.”

Our country needs undocumented workers to maintain our economy functioning. And instead of recognizing this, we are dehumanized and forced to stay silent. If this was not enough, we are blamed for the downward spiral of American culture. We are berated for having dreams, as if U.S. citizens have the market cornered for dreaming big. We have 2.1 million young undocumented youth who don’t have the proper documentation to fully contribute, even though many of us are high school and college graduates. Even though Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) has inspired a newfound hope for undocumented youth, there are still many of us who don’t qualify for this temporary two-year relief.

Many feel that we should be pleased that both presidential candidates spoke about immigration. However, they did so in the context of fighting terrorism. They gave us more of the same rhetoric: an enforcement-only approach to immigration. Mitt proposes making living conditions so horrid through legislation that people will resort to “self-deportation.” But how is our situation any better under Obama, whose administration has deported 400,000 people a year since he took office? Where is our hope?

Hateful and inaccurate language is what allows for me and other undocumented immigrants to be treated as less than human. And whether Obama or Mitt win, one thing is for sure: we have to keep fighting for the respect of all immigrants.

Jesús Iñiguez is a contributor to Presente.org, and a co-founder of dreamersadrift.com.

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