There was standing room only as students and faculty gathered to hear two perspectives on the power that words and labels have in an ongoing battle over immigration.
The hour-long session was billed as “They Don’t Belong Here: The Dangerous Rhetoric Behind Illegal Immigration.”
According to organizer Agustin Diaz, the discussion was meant to “get away from the politics and legalities of the situation. To come back to the reason we all think this [the treatment of immigrants] is wrong.”
The event came just five days after HB70, a bill sponsored by Rep. Stephen Sandstrom and modeled after Arizona’s SB 1070, passed in the Utah House.
Diaz said the idea for the session came from a cousin who had been harassed by customers at a restaurant in Orem, for being Latino. He said they told his cousin, in very offensive words, that she should go back to Mexico.
“My task is to put a face on the so-called illegal immigrant and make them into human beings,” said presenter Lynn England.
Much of England’s presentation focused on the term “illegal” and its implications.
“ ‘Illegal Immigrant’ is not a neutral term,” he said. “We talk about immigrants today as though they were strange.”
England also “confessed” that he had done illegal and unsafe things, such as speeding with his grandkids in the car, and questioned whether this act was really any worse than crossing the border illegally.
“In a sense, I am illegal,” England said.
Presenter Albert Walker focused on the long history of immigration to the U.S. and how Americans have “long feared foreigners.”
“All my ancestors are immigrants,” Walker said.
He also pointed out that all of Utah once belonged to Mexico and the irony of now enacting legislation to keep Mexicans and other Latino immigrants out of Utah.
Walker later said that laws being enacted against Latino immigrants are a step toward genocide, after drawing parallels between the treatment of Latinos now and Jews in Poland, Belarus and other European countries before and during World War II.
Walker became visibly emotional near the end of his remarks.
“He who hates his brother is a murderer already in his heart,” he said, referencing John 3:15.
But he also claimed that appreciating all humanity as such was an important factor in preventing atrocities, citing the extremely low death rate of Jews in Belgium during WWII, where they were treated “as fellow countrymen” rather than foreigners.