In a decision that will likely have far-reaching influence in the media, the Associated Press decided to drop the phrase “illegal immigrant” from its style book. The AP argues that the term “illegal” is imprecise and should only apply to actions, not people . The AP’s choice fits with immigration and Latino rights groups’ arguments that the term “illegal immigrant” is degrading and dehumanizing because no person should be viewed as “illegal .” The labels we use in debating immigration matter because they apply to human beings.
No matter what your politics on the issue of immigration are, it is important to remember that all immigrants come to America with their own hopes and dreams. Jimmy Santiago Baca’s poem “Immigrants in Our Land” accurately sums up many immigrants’ dreams and disappointments. He begins:
We are born with dreams in our hearts,
looking for better days ahead.
At the gates we are given new papers,
our old clothes are taken
and we are given shots and doctors ask questions .
In his poem immigrants come to America with the hope for a better and freer future, but face inevitable disappointment instead:
We came here to get away from false promises,
from dictators in our neighborhoods,
who wore blue suits and broke our doors down
when they wanted, arrested us when they felt like,
swinging clubs and shooting guns as they pleased.
But it’s no different here. It’s all concentrated .
He describes the immigration process as fundamentally dehumanizing. Immigrants enter with hopes for a better future, but instead become engulfed by an overwhelming legalistic process:
Some will make it out of here with hate in their eyes,
but so very few make it out of here as human
as they came in, they leave wondering what good they are now .
Edwidge Danticat’s story “Children of the Sea” frames the American immigration system through the view of a group of Haitians desperate to reach America by sea. While Cuban and Haitian immigrants both come from Caribbean island nations with histories of political repression and poverty, Cubans generally have received a far warmer welcome. One of the Haitians on the boat in Danticat’s story laments that after spending so much time out in the sun, “Now we will never be mistaken for Cubans.” The man recalled an experience in which he shared a boat with a group of Cubans that had been intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard. While the Coast Guard took the Cubans straight to Miami, they promptly returned him to Haiti .
Finally making in through the American immigration process gives immigrants a better sense of purpose and belonging. Danticat’s story “Caroline’s Wedding” begins with this victory. The story begins with the narrator gleefully leaving a Brooklyn courtroom waving her naturalization certificate “like the head of an enemy rightfully conquered in battle.” Temporarily giving up her certificate to receive a passport, however, made her feel “like unclaimed property .”
At the same time all immigrants documented or otherwise, are a part of American society. No matter what the case, they are individuals with their own needs and dreams. As one character in Ha Jin’s story “A Good Fall” explains to Ganchin, a distraught Chinese monk whose legal status in America has ended, “Except for the Indians, nobody’s really a native in the United States. You mustn’t think of yourself as a stranger – this country belongs to you if you live and work here .”
 Jimmy Santiago Baca, “Immigrants in Our Own Land,” in Immigrants in Our Own Land & Selected Early Poems (New York: New Directions Publishing), 12.
 Ibid, 12.
 Ibid, 13.
 Edwidge Danticat, “Children of the Sea,” in Krik? Krak (New York: Vintage Books), 8.
 Danticat, “Caroline’s Wedding,” 157-158.
 Ha Jin, “A Good Fall,” in A Good Fall (New York: Pantheon Books), 231.