Opinion: Fried Green Bananas -- The Immigration Debate 2.0

PHOTO: Painting by Los Angeles-based artist Liliflor Ramirez.Sandra Guzman
Painting by Los Angeles-based artist Liliflor Ramirez.

No human being is illegal but not everyone has always recognized that. With his speech unveiling a comprehensive immigration plan this week, President Obama has signaled that a new chapter has begun in the immigration debate. This change has little to do with the plan the President put forth and more to do with the language that he used.

Throughout his speech Obama referred to people without legal papers as undocumented immigrants four times. He used the term illegal immigrants only once. Colorlines, which started the Drop the I Campaign urging media and other institutions to drop the i-word "because it was clear that the i-word was not neutral and reflects the value we assign to people, families and communities," was the first to report on the symbolic change. The blog has been keeping count on the terminology as the battle over immigration rages on.

It's a symbolic change that is giant step in the immigration debate because what we call each other matters, and it matters greatly.

I've never subscribed to the idea that words will never hurt. In fact, it's clear that words injure as much as sticks and stones. Words are weapons of mass devastation. They can and have been used to dehumanize masses of people and communities rendering them less human and making them prey for easy killing. What we call each other in moments of bliss further enhances our joy and connection to the other. And the opposite is also very true: what we call each other in moments of anger and fear injures deeply, the wounds of the slings stinging years later.

"I always felt like a shadow because I knew my family's status in this country was illegal," a friend from Colombia who grew up in Queens told me. "Many times I felt subhuman." Shirley knows too well how the i-slur has been used in the battle and her sense of shame and fragile self-esteem is something that she is still recuperating from despite her now successful career as a writer.

The i-word is a slur because it seeks to strip the humanity of a person who does not have a piece of paper. It renders them subhuman as Shirley reminded me. But not everyone accepted it as such, not even dignified news organizations, which should know better as they understand the power of words. Too many media still use the i-slur.

Thankfully, the call for change has also reached the Republican Party. A leaked memo by the Hispanic Leadership Network (HLN) urged Republican members to stop using the terms aliens, illegals, as well as anchor babies when describing people without legal papers. Jennifer Korn, the organization's executive director, got it right when she pointed out "that tone and rhetoric will be key in the days and months ahead as both liberals and conservatives lay out their respective plans."

Rinku Sen, president of the Applied Research Center and publisher of Colorlines said that they started the "Drop the I Campaign" because it was clear that the i-word was not neutral. Exactly.

With the leader of the free world softening his language he is signaling for others to follow. It all starts with how we talk to each other and how we describe the other. And Obama gestured that finally the country is ready for some real change. With this shift in language, the possibilities of real immigration reform happening are more certain than ever.

Sandra Guzmán is an award winning journalist, blogger, media consultant, and author of, "The New Latina's Bible: The Modern Latina's Guide to Love, Spirituality, Family & La Vida."