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‘Illegal Aliens’

September 2007


The last few decades of American presidential politics sorely test those eager to find an arc of social progress in history’s unfolding.


In 1972, candidates debated a guaranteed national income; in today’s new über-Gilded Age, concerns of the poor are rarely even mentioned in national policy discussions.


In 1978, sitting President Jimmy Carter could — and did — urge decriminalization of marijuana; today, candidates vie for who can sound toughest and endorse ever-harsher penalties for all drug “crimes.”


And while JFK could enjoy White House sexual dalliances confident that his sex life was indeed private, similar frolic today — with society’s new hysterical obsession with sexual transgressions — leads to impeachment.


The retrograde in national discourse is nowhere more evident than in the current debate about immigration.


In 1988, Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis used Neil Diamond’s paean to immigrants “[They’re Coming to] America” as his theme song, an unthinkable selection in today’s xenophobic climate.


Economic insecurities and the “perpetual war” mindset have re-awakened the country’s nativist sentiment. Tune in to AM talk radio, or watch Fox News and you’ll hear shocking calls for herding millions of people into concentration camps to await deportation; indeed, you will not have to listen long before hearing calls for even more final solutions.


Throughout the immigration debate, those in the U.S. without proper documentation are often referred to as “illegal aliens.” Both words of that phrase are repulsive and dangerous terms of propaganda.


As gay people, we know all-too-well what follows when one’s very existence is considered to be an offense to the law. Those branded “illegal” are ever-ripe for exploitation, for they cannot appeal to authorities for relief. When homosexuality is itself illegal, gay citizens cannot defend their rights to work where they are able, or to live where they want; after all, criminals deserve whatever maltreatment they receive. Today’s “illegals” similarly are forced to endure indignities at the hands of employers, police, landlords, utility companies, and others.


And we gay people can appreciate the harm that can come from being labeled “alien.” Anti-gay zealots are eager to cast gay people as “not of us,” as non-members of the human race. Similarly, inhumane treatment of undocumented workers is easier when they are not considered fellow human beings, but rather aliens to be feared, tracked, controlled, and gotten rid of.


Gay organizations speaking out about immigration have largely focused on the unfairness of policies that keep homosexual couples separated. Heterosexually married people get special immigration considerations, but gay and lesbian couples do not have such an option, and thus are frequently confronted with heart-rending challenges to living their lives together.


While such discriminatory policies are indeed unfair and merit reform, we will be well-served by expanding our vision. We must attack the very idea of “illegal alien,” for human rights are — as the Declaration of Independence proclaims– inalienable. Any meaningful concept of human rights understands that people — all people — have basic civil rights by virtue of being human. Human rights do not flow from having the proper stamp in your travel papers, or from speaking the correct language, or from having a spouse of the appropriate gender or nationality. Human rights are just that: human rights.


At gay pride demonstrations of yore, one often heard the chant, “We are everywhere, and we will be free!” If we are to honor that commitment to a radically inclusive concept of freedom and rights, we must forever banish the noxious notion of anyone, anywhere, being an “illegal alien.”


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