Wetbacks. Beaners. Spics. Illegals. Illegal aliens. Illegal immigrants.
The brain hears: Undesirable. Repulsive. Un-American. Criminals. Invaders. Expel.
These hate words spreads like a poison triggering fear and resentment that America is under attack and that we live in a dangerous place.
Few people know how to exploit the scientific advances in our knowledge of the brain to trigger specific emotional responses better than pollster Frank Luntz. In October 2005, he issued a 25-page secret memorandum that would radically distort public perception of the immigration debate. It was so widely adopted by media pundits and politicians that you can almost hear Mitt Romney parroting the words and phrases from the memorandum on the campaign trail.
Luntz said talk about “border security” because after 9/11 this “argument does well among all voters – even hardcore Democrats” as it conjures up fears of terrorists. And this advice, sure to promote fear and hate: “This is about overcrowding of YOUR schools, emergency room chaos in YOUR hospitals, the increase in YOUR taxes, and the crime in YOUR communities.”
In his book, “Words that Work,” Luntz explains how a phrase repeated over and over can permanently label someone. For example “never say undocumented worker, instead say illegal immigrant” because this generates negative connotations.
These racial slurs and offensive, hate-language not only frame Latinos as criminals, they also subconsciously call up the sheriff Joe Arpaio in all of us, rather than the Good Samaritan.
In 2010, University of South Carolina journalism professor Sei-hill Kim and Auburn University professor John Carvalho researched newspaper articles and television transcripts between 1997 and 2006 and found the terms illegal alien, illegal immigrant, or just plain illegals are everywhere on television, in newspapers, and on talk radio. They also discovered journalists attracted the largest audiences with crime stories, so linking immigrants to a crime drama was preferred because it increased ratings and profits.
This sleazy practice was confirmed by Fox News host Geraldo Rivera who recently urged his colleagues to drop these biased and racial epithets, charging that media companies “are making a killing demonizing undocumented immigrants” because few issues work so well for ratings in cable news and talk radio.
In the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the landmark Arizona immigration case on June 25th Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and three other justices made clear that foreign nationals residing unlawfully in the U.S. are not -- and never have been -- criminals. They are subject to deportation, through a civil procedure where judges have wide discretion to allow them to remain here. The Court also ruled that it was not a crime to seek or engage in unauthorized employment. Groundbreaking also was what the Court omitted: the biased and racially charged words “illegal immigrants” and “illegal aliens,” except when quoting other sources.
While most Americans believe the majority of foreign nationals here sneak across our southern border in the middle of the night, the reality is that almost half of them enter the U.S. with a valid visa and just overstay, becoming “out of status”. Many go to school, find a job, get married, and start a family.
Many migrants do sneak across the border.
Jose Gutierrez was orphaned when he was 8, forced to fight for survival in a dangerous slum outside Guatemala City. Jose was desperate to stay alive and he made a harrowing 3,000 mile trek by foot and train to America. This economic refugee was sustained by his strong faith in God, and gratefully received sanctuary in a foster home in California. He graduated from high school and was studying architecture at Harbor Community College where he was recruited to play soccer. But things changed for him after Sept. 11, when he told his foster sister “From what I’ve seen Saddam has to be confronted. It’s my job. It’s also my duty.” Jose enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps.
Lance Cpl. Jose Gutierrez was killed in a tank battle, the first combat solider to die in Iraq. For his bravery he was awarded American citizenship posthumously. There are another 38,000 soldiers in American uniforms – mostly Latinos – who are not American citizens. President Obama in a private White House ceremony yesterday to commemorate the July 4th holiday swore in twenty-five new citizens, all members of the armed forces, including ten Latinos.
The reason journalists get away with dehumanizing Latinos with coded hate language for profit lies in large part on the Associated Press Stylebook which is the media industry bible for the appropriate use of language. Since 2004, AP directs the media to use "illegal immigrant" as the most “accurate and neutral” term.
Suggesting that “illegal immigrant” is accurate and neutral is like Chief Justice William Rehnquist defending his use of the term “wetbacks” for Mexican children. He once argued with a shocked Justice Thurgood Marshall that this racial slur still carried “currency in his part of the country.” Rehnquist practiced law in Phoenix for sixteen years.
Not surprisingly the 19-member board of directors of the Associated Press doesn’t have a single Latino on its board. If it did, I’m sure management would be chastised for the use of “illegal immigrant” which is not only inaccurate and biased but highly offensive.
Why does any of this matter? Because words can be loaded guns.
In May 2011, Juan Varela was in his front yard in Phoenix when he was shot by his white neighbor yelling "Go back to Mexico or die!" Juan was a fifth-generation American.
In May 2010, in an Arizona border town, Raul Flores and his nine-year-old daughter Brisenia were gunned down in their house by a Minuteman vigilante group. Both were natural born U.S. citizens. After she witnessed the group murder her father, the frightened little girl begged "Please don't shoot me." Brisenia’s head was blown off at point blank range in front of her mother, who survived the attack.
In November 2008, in Long Island, N.Y., seven white teenagers admitted to the perverse sport of “beaner hopping.” One of the known victims was Marcelo Lucero who was waiting for a train around midnight. They terrorized him with racial slurs, and then beat and stabbed him to death. Marcelo was a church going Ecuadorian migrant working at a local dry cleaner to help feed his family.
While the media has made Trayvon Martin a household name did you ever hear of Juan Varela, Raul and Brisenia Flores, or Marcelo Lucero?
According to the FBI, hate crimes increased toward Latinos rose from 45 percent in 2009 to 66 percent in 2010. Keep in mind that most hate crimes go unreported.
How many more Latinos need to be shot and beaten to death before the Associated Press -- sitting there like the three monkeys who “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" -- take the target off the backs of innocent Latinos?
Charles Garcia, CEO of Garcia Trujillo Holdings, has served in the administration of four presidents. He is the best-selling author of two leadership books and was named in the book "Hispanics in the USA: Making History" as one of 14 Hispanic role models for the nation books. Follow him on Twitter: @charlespgarcia.