Column: The Californian Roots of the Struggle for the Term "Illegal Alien"

At a time when the economy remains in tatters, the coronavirus continues to kill and Texas is colder than Stephen Miller's heart, Joe Biden does Really Do you have to worry about what we call those who are illegally in this country?

Oh yeah.

This week US Citizenship and Immigration Services announced that they would forever use the language “inclusive” in public and corporate communications. It was a warm up an immigration reform law designed to provide avenue for citizenship to more than 11 million people in this country without legal status.

So to speak adiós to any official mention of "assimilation" and Hi to "civil integration". Time to replace "alien" with "non-citizen". And "illegal alien", the harsh-sounding couplet that conjures up images of intergalactic invasions? Biden's team wants his people to go with "undocumented non-citizens" or "undocumented people" instead.

The move has sparked expected responses from left and right – the former welcomes the move as a humanistic touch after four years of Trumpian ugliness, while the latter PC screams Reconquista. It's a test balloon for the rancor when President Biden tries to enforce the first immigration amnesty in 35 years. A cloud of dust over the language will appear like afternoon tea once these debates begin.

"Illegal foreigners" have been around in the legal field for decades and, colloquially in the US, goes back to the 1880s, when it was about Chinese, Jews and Italians whom we wanted to keep out. But the term didn't really take off during our culture wars until it caught the attention of California's two most prophetic voices in the state's eternal existential debate over illegal immigration.

Bert Corona and Barbara Coe passed away a long time ago – he in 2001, she in 2013. But her legacy plays a big role in the debate about "illegal aliens". It was their common linguistic stick to advance their respective causes.

Civil rights activist Bert Corona in his office

The civil rights activist Bert Corona fought against the use of "illegal aliens".

(Lori Shepler / Los Angeles Times)

For Corona, the legendary civil rights activist confronted people and institutions who used "illegal aliens" to argue that their choice of words was no better than previous anti-Latino slurs like "Greaser", "Wetback" and "Spic".

For Coe, a Huntington Beach chain-smoking grandmother who started America's modern nativist movement, that was the point. Coe, a civilian worker with the Anaheim Police Department, capitalized on the xenophobia that always rises beneath the California surface as one of the loudest thought leaders behind it Proposition 187. The 1994 election initiative aimed to make life difficult for illegal immigrants and to galvanize left and right to reach the fever level we are at today.

Barbara Coe shows literature that was distributed by an Anti-Proposition 187 group in 1994

Orange County activist Barbara Coe was a driving force behind Proposition 187 in 1994.

(Iris Schneider / Los Angeles Times)

Corona and Coe represent two sides of the same California coin that appears to switch to the other side roughly every ten years in the case of illegal immigration. At the moment it shows Corona – but don't count Coe out just because Biden's camp says so. After all, hatred doesn't go away that quickly – if at all.

After organizing workers of all ethnicities for decades, Corona decided to focus on the plight of undocumented workers in the 1960s. At the time, mainstream civil rights groups still viewed them as an economic and cultural threat to the advancement of the Latino – an unthinkable position today, but the norm then.

For them "illegal alien" was an anodyne and a far better alternative than "wetback". Take a letter from the UCLAs Chicano Law Student Assn. wrote on this paper in 1970 that the former sentence was better because the latter "had racist overtones".

But even "illegal aliens" were not good enough for Corona.

"He knew how devastating such a term was," said UC Santa Barbara professor Mario T. Garciawho published a book interview with Corona about his life in 1994. "Undocumented people from Mexico were exploited and humiliated, and it was his own sense of humanity that no one should be considered illegal."

Corona angered the Chicano and Anglo political establishments alike with its campaigns to cancel "illegal aliens". Cesar Chavez has convicted his lawyer in Corona's group, Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, after conducting an illegal immigration campaign blessed by Chavez. Corona even accepted Otis Chandler, the legendary former editor of this paperto the point where Chandler agreed to meet about the Times' further printing of the offensive words.

"We have emphasized that such a term feeds hysteria," Corona told Garcia. "We told them we couldn't understand the Times and said that they were referring to the Chicano community and that they regretted Ruben Salazar's death while using inflammatory terms like 'illegal aliens'."

A 1970 letter from a Chicano student to the Los Angeles Times asking about paper usage

A 1970 letter from a Chicano student group to the Los Angeles Times requesting that the newspaper use "illegal aliens" instead of "wetback".

(Los Angeles times)

Chandler promised that The Times would no longer use it. The newspaper used "illegal aliens" in news back in the early 2000s.

However, Corona's endorsement sparked a radical change in the way Latinos and liberals thought about undocumented immigrants and the language we use to describe them. "Illegal Alien" remained the term "Du Jour" in the American mainstream through the 1970s and 1980s, but Corona and others always pushed back with softer descriptions such as "unauthorized" or the worn-out refrain "No one is illegal".

The strategy worked: the number of “illegal aliens” decreased after President Reagan signed an amnesty in 1986 that legalized more than 3 million formally undocumented immigrants. The term “illegal immigrant” took its place.

Then came Coe, whose view of the political landscape was as supernatural as Corona, although she saw a far darker scenario before her.

Knowing that suburban and working-class whites were angry with Republicans for letting Reagan's amnesty law pass through, she formed civic groups where participants scolded immigrants for hours. Coe channeled that anger to become the emotional force behind Proposition 187, which was passed with nearly two-thirds of the vote in California in 1994.

His legacy remains twofold: the initiative inspired a generation of Latinos to get politically active and turn California to the left – but it also sparked a devastating fire against immigrants that has spread across the country over the past 25 years, including Donald Trumps 2016 culminated in the presidential victory.

And the fuel was Coe's invocation to "illegal aliens". She took it from history's ashtrays to light her march through the dark corridors of hatred, for Coe knew how effective and flammable it would be.

At speeches, rallies and in interviews with the media, Coe spat out the sheet (and his caustic cousin "Illegale") or wrote it on signs (the response to the argument "people are illegal" was "which part of"). illegal & # 39; don't you understand? ”). The official California Voter Guide from 1994, for example, contained a yes to 187 campaign argument in which "ILLEGAL ALIENS" (originally All-Caps) were mentioned eight times.

Coe always claimed her language was neutral – "This is a legal matter, it's not a racist matter," she told The Times in 1993. But it was the same dog whistle that the Trump administration learned to blow so well, Otto Santa Ana said. He is a recently retired UCLA professor whose influential 2002 book "Brown Tide Rising: Latino Metaphors In Contemporary American Public Discourse" traced the rise of inflammatory languages ​​such as "illegal aliens" and other such slurs.

The use "became a very simple argument for double attacks," said Santa Ana. "Illegal" excludes any other consideration of the status of the individual. "Alien" is an old term from common English law. Together the words do not allow any subtlety. "

Anti-immigrant activists doubled down against "illegal aliens," and conservative politicians followed suit. But they were on the wrong side of history even before Trump gave them a temporary bump. Santa Ana was one of hundreds of academics who joined a campaign in the early 2010s urging media organizations to "drop the I-word" – that is, "illegal". This paper agreed to the 2013;; The Library of Congress stopped using "illegal aliens" as a theme three years later.

Santa Ana welcomes the Biden government's strike against "illegal aliens" but warns that it will remain "an uphill struggle" to make it a thing of the past. Such a strong Shibboleth doesn't just go away with a department log.

"It's the best we can do now," he said. Because "until we are attacked by Mars, we will continue to use it."

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