What’s in a Name? In the Case of Immigration, More Than Shakespeare Thought


A mural in San Francisco, California. Source: pescador72.blogspot.com.

By Hazel Guardado
Committee on U.S.-Latin American Relations (CUSLAR)

“Low browed and savage, groveling and bestial, lazy and wild, simian and sensual” were just some of the ways Americans described the Catholic Irish before the Civil War.

In The Wages of Whiteness, David Roediger describes how being called an “Irishman” was almost as denigrating as being called a “nigger.” These kinds of racial slurs, which dehumanize and facilitate discrimination, are surprisingly frequent in history. They bring about deeper social consequences and often downright violence, and today’s immigration debate is not immune from their effects.

How can a slur change the way a group of people is treated? How can we use this knowledge to improve our approach to immigration and human rights? We must begin by accepting that name calling is not okay.


The faces of immigrants in the 1800s and 1900s. For many, Ellis Island was the first stop. Photo: wosu.org

The examples are plentiful. In modern Russian, the term “nemets” has a long history that illustrates the same scornful attitude towards outsiders. Today, “nemets” means “a German,” but it comes from the word for “mute” and was originally applied to all foreigners who did not speak Russian. Because most foreigners were German, however, the term continued to be used only in reference to this particular group. Thus, the derogatory term for foreigners reflects a deeper concern with communication and perhaps education, pitting the native group against a less educated group incapable of Russian language.

In ancient Greece, the term “barbarian” was used for people outside a state; since being human meant being a political animal for the Greeks, someone outside of a political unit was less than human. The Greeks also applied the term liberally to non-Greeks, and it became a more derisive term indicating moral degeneracy after the Persian War.

Similar cases occur in traditional Chinese culture and in ancient Hindu culture, where “Mleccha” was applied to foreigners to mean “dirty ones” or “barbarians.” These are all radical examples of xenophobia, but they illustrate extreme versions of something that persists today among immigrant-native relations.


To the Greeks, Persian language sounded like “barbar” sounds, hence the term “barbarians.” Tensions came to a head during the Persian War. Photo from: vladtepesblog.com

According to the U.S. government, an “alien” is “an individual who is not a U.S. citizen or U.S. national,” and it is usually preceded by “illegal,” which is equally denigrating. Though mostly legal terms, they have deeply negative connotations which resemble the xenophobia of Greek culture.

This is not to say that the United States, a country built which is built on and thrives from diversity, is a fundamentally xenophobic society, but it is essential to consider what kind of message such a term projects to others. The immigration debate, already a tense one, would benefit from basic terminology modifications to replace the dehumanizing terms currently in use.

This dehumanization serves a twofold purpose. The first is that it steers the conversation away from what it should be about –human rights. The immigration question is currently framed as whether people should be allowed to enter and remain in a country legally, but it should be framed in terms of migration as a fundamental human right. Thanks to terms like “illegal aliens,” the question becomes hyper-politicized and we forget that migration is a natural phenomenon.

The second purpose of this dehumanization is that it allows both the U.S. government and the general population to criminalize immigrants and see them as a problem rather than understanding their position. In ancient Greece, calling someone a barbarian justified violence and social exclusion, and in the U.S. this terminology justifies economic exploitation and the use of immigrants as scapegoats.

If undocumented immigrants are simply placed in a faceless category of “illegal aliens,” there is no need to even hear what they have to say. Some proposals for current legislation on immigration call for opening paths to citizenship, but many immigrants simply want the right to work legally, not the opportunity to become citizens.

Thus, we must shift our terminology from “illegal” to “undocumented,” or even better, “improperly documented.” (Even if they can’t prove legal status, most migrants have some form of identification document.)

“Illegal” simply objectifies people and taints everything they do, suggesting their status is irreversible. Such words also open the door to more common terms thrown at immigrants like “balseros,” “refs” (short for refugees), and “FOTB” (fresh off the boat).

These slurs are not only shameful ways of describing others, but they also negatively shape how we treat fellow human beings. Most importantly, the U.S. cannot have a serious and impactful discussion of immigration without removing this terminology, both within the legal system and outside of it.

One response to “What’s in a Name? In the Case of Immigration, More Than Shakespeare Thought

  1. Great post, Hazel! I really agree that using slurs is only backwards: to obtaining a comprehensive immigration reform that will not only grant undocumented immigrants, or “improperly documented” immigrants a path to citizenship, but also from liberating them from any of these terms which perpetuate their condition.

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