Aliens, Anchors, and How Words Still Matter

I was twelve years old and it was a school night. I was at the dining room table, carefully gluing together pieces of paper and cardboard as I tried to create a diorama on Beethoven for my social studies class the next morning. I had even made a miniature grand piano with stained music sheets scattered around the board. I smiled proudly to myself; this was going to be my greatest project yet.

My mother was next to me, handing me each piece as I needed it. Her presence was warm and inviting. We had just eaten dinner, so the wafting smell of cooked onions and tomatoes still lingered through the house. My brother and sister were in the other room and I could hear them watching T.V.

Then, a loud, abrupt knock sounded at the front door. We weren’t expecting anyone. My mother and I looked at each other, eyebrows raised, wondering who it could be.

I went to the door. Through the window, I could instantly tell that there were two grown men, wearing dark colored jackets.  My blood ran cold and I hastily called out to my mother.

She spoke with them as I ran to the other room where my siblings were.

When my mother closed the door, her eyes were red with tears and her voice shaky as she told us the news. The men were immigration officers. They had taken Dad.

Unbeknown to us, they had waited outside our house that day until Dad had gotten home. When he arrived, they placed handcuffs on him and arrested him for his illegal status. They were going to deport him back to Colombia.

The news of that shook me.

My father arrived in the United States as a minor. He hadn’t set foot in his home country for over twenty years. My mother was from Chile and arrived in the States on a student visa when she attended college. They met, were married, and had four American children. We had a house in central Florida. My mother was a school teacher and my dad a real estate agent. From all that I knew at the time, we were a normal American family.

I had no idea what was going to happen to us. They were going to take my mother too but had mercy for our family that day. I didn’t know how I was supposed to act the next day at school. I didn’t know what to say to my friends. For my parents, this was the most shameful thing that could’ve ever happened to them.

Within a month, we had to pack all our things, sell our house, and leave for a country that neither of us had ever known before. I didn’t even speak Spanish. This event racked my life, flipped it upside down, and twisted a stable family unit into living 10 years of intense financial struggle and profound psychological distress.

I remember my fear as a seventh grader, knowing I could not tell my peers or teachers the real reason my family was moving way. No one could or would ever understand. They would think my dad was a “dirty beaner” as many of my middle school friends often joked about Hispanics. My father was a college graduate, spoke four languages, and was a leader in our church.  I could not bear the thought of anyone thinking any less of my dad.

Even at such a young age, the words they used like “illegal” and “aliens” felt like spikes in my throat.

So, I lied, and told them my dad got a new job. If only that were true, because he would spend the next decade completely unemployed, stuck in a country he no longer knew.

When I think about how these words affected me then, as a small preteen young girl, I can only imagine the impact it has on the thousands of other families and children who experience the same thing.  “Illegal,” “alien,” and “anchor babies” are words that dehumanize. They frame individuals trying to make a better life into non-humans that are unwanted strangers. The trespasser’s children therefore, are only parasitic products that need to be rid of.

In fact, the idea of an “anchor baby” is completely false. Considering my mother’s residency status at the time she had me in 1996, I am considered an anchor baby.  These are American children born to unauthorized immigrants, assumed to facilitate the parents in obtaining guaranteed citizenship. What many people fail to realize is that legally, a non-U.S. citizen may not apply for citizenship through their American children until they have reached at least 21 years of age. That’s at least a 10-year investment for a derailed, complicated process to potential citizenship that’s not guaranteed. No one in their right mind would commit to something like that. I was an American, but we were still forced to leave.

I must point out that I do not intend to argue the best legislative action that should take place with regards to the current political situation. However, I am here to point out the utmost importance of rhetoric and the language we use in relation to human individuals and families.

When we talk about immigration, we must consider how our words can dehumanize, diminishing the magnitude of the complex issues that drive people to relocate.

Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor, famously wrote: “You who are so-called illegal aliens must know that no human being is illegal. That is a contradiction in terms. Human beings can be beautiful or more beautiful, they can be fat or skinny, they can be right or wrong, but illegal? How can a human being be illegal?”1

Giving such a one-note label to an individual by calling them illegal (which would seem like a moderate term in comparison to other derogatory alternatives) still implies that the person’s mere existence is a crime. It disregards everything else that may sum up a human being’s worth and value in favor of a careless, short-cut term.

Historically, there are numerous accounts of how dehumanizing words have led to horrendous, genocidal acts. In the case of the Jews during the Holocaust, they were often labeled as vermin or rodent-like. Even indigenous Native American communities were also similarly labeled as an inferior race to that of the white man, often called savages. Colonialism has a long, dark history of abuse and mistreatment framed by a false rationale that began with terminology.

Multiple psychological studies have also been done that affirm the gradual damage caused by these metaphorical, dehumanizing terms. One study on the Boston Marathon bombings and the Woolwich attacks in England concluded that blatant dehumanization strongly predicts support for aggressive action.Another study concluded that “denying uniquely human attributes to others represents them as animal-like and denying human nature to others represents them as objects or automata.” It also affirms that dehumanization is a gradual process, rooted in every-day social thinking processes.3

Dehumanizing words may seem harmless at first but like any domino fall, can quickly accelerate to more disastrous outcomes.

Therefore, when discussing immigration, it simply cannot be limited to the habitual dehumanizing terminology that is so often depicted in current contemporary debate. It should not be a conversation that that aims to determine more favorable and unfavorable migration patterns, as if it were about birds or pests.  Words such as “illegal”, “alien,” and “anchor babies” do not resolve much of anything. Instead, they only serve to ostracize thousands of people already misconceived.

We are real people moving for real reasons, and we have hopes and dreams just like everyone else.

This post was written by Dalila Sanabria, Humanities Center Undergraduate Fellow.



[3] on dehumanization.pdf

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1 Comment

  1. Keith Lawrence says:

    Thank you, Dalila, most sincerely, for your wise and courageous and absolutely relevant posting. Your story touches my soul and makes me weep for the sometimes collective inhumanity of America. You remind us that Christ’s loving sacrifice is for all of us, equally, and that we are thus obliged and honored to love and sustain one another.

    Thank you for sharing your family’s example of forgiveness, faith, and devotion in the face of prejudicial vengeance, cynicism, and treachery. Your story reminds us all of our responsibilities as Americans–and Christians–and underscores the essence of Christmas itself. You couldn’t have given us more timely counsel. Bless you.

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