If the 2012 presidential election taught us anything, it’s that anachronistic thinking can be a colossal political liability.

Republicans learned this lesson the hard way, when their strategy to dilute the Democratic voting bloc backfired: resulting in Barack Obama’s sweeping victory and a Senate majority for Democrats.

Given the trifecta of Todd Akin’s theory on women’s natural defenses against “legitimate rape” (which killed the senate candidate’s chances of upending Claire McCaskill’s incumbency in Missouri), evolving attitudes on what it means to protect the civil rights of all Americans in Maine, Maryland and Washington (where voters have legalized same-sex marriage) and Mitt Romney’s calls for “self-deportation” during the GOP primary (which provoked the wrath of immigration activists) I imagine it’ll be a long time before wedge issues on abortion, gay rights and/or immigration are deployed in an effort to divide and conquer like-minded Americans of any political stripe.

In hindsight, it can be argued that the tens-of-millions of women, young voters and people of color who were standing in Romney’s blind spot during the entire campaign season are what ultimately cost him the election. And then there was the juggernaut of Latino voters who were also, apparently, beyond the former governor’s scope of vision. Estimated at 11.8 million strong: the contingency has been credited with playing a pivotal role in the presidential election for the first time in history. Battleground states like Colorado, Ohio, Nevada and Virginia were one such example, where Latinos helped deliver the critical electoral votes Obama needed to defeat Romney.

Past being prologue, it stands to reason that as the face of America changes it is in everyone’s best interest to recognize the shifts and adapt to any new paradigms accordingly. Choosing to stay in the dark surrounding this reality not only makes for bad neighbors and bad business, but as Romney supporters could attest by November 7th, bad political outcomes.

Election Night found me channel surfing between ABC, CNBC, FOX and CNN. But well before polling places closed and all the votes were tallied, news pundits were predicting that Republican Party losses could be attributed to their gross disregard of current trends. I could not have agreed more. Which is why I found it so ironic when John King and Wolf Blitzer blithely referenced a CNN poll on “illegal immigrants” midway through their broadcast– leaving me to wonder how much longer it would take for news leaders to get the message that characterizing human beings as “illegal” is not only pejorative and offensive, but fast becoming an anachronism.

 

“You who are so-called illegal aliens must know that no human being is illegal. That is a contradiction in terms. Human beings can be beautiful, or more beautiful, they can be fat or skinny, they can be right or wrong, but illegal? How can a human being be illegal?”

-Elie Wiesel

When Eli Wiesel– a Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor whose reputation as a champion for human rights is unimpeachable– issues a call for us to rethink language which dehumanizes entire swaths of humaity, we might want to take heed. And when the Supreme Court makes a conscious effort to banish the terms “illegal immigrants” and “illegal aliens” from a ruling on immigration (as they did last July in the landmark Arizona case), journalists might want to follow suit. Or, we could all simply consider the logic of one reporter who has been at the vanguard of this movement for reasons that are both personal and professional.

Last year the New York Times Magazine published an essay titled “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant” by Jose Antonio Vargas. A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist: Vargas was born in the Philippines, raised in the United States from the age of 12 and had no idea he was in the country illegally until he applied for his driver’s license as a 16-year-old.

Though his intent was to promote dialogue about the DREAM Act and what he regards as a broken immigration policy, Vargas’s appeal to news organizations to stop using the term “illegal” to describe immigrants will likely be his greatest legacy.

In his article, Vargas points out that because being in the country without proper documents is a civil offense as opposed to a criminal one, “it is legally inaccurate to describe an immigrant as illegal.” He also makes the case that “when journalists, who are supposed to seek neutrality and fairness use the terms, [illegal immigrants or illegal aliens] they are politicizing an already political issue.” A point buttressed by Arizona’s Sheriff Joe Arpaio– whose re-election in Maricopa County demonstrates the power of such discourse to shape public opinion on immigration policy– regardless of the speaker’s intent.

To be clear, I respect the need for strict border controls. I believe all visitors to the United States should be required to follow any laws pertaining to residency and a path to citizenship before gaining either. I believe that citizenship is a privilege, not a right. And I often question the wisdom of undocumented immigrants marching on Washington, DC, Chicago and Los Angeles to demand equal protection under the law while the threat of deportation hangs over their heads for an infraction far greater than that of civil disobedience.

By the same token, it is difficult to overlook the hypocrisy of non-Native Americans laying down the law on who should and should not be granted a residency, green card, visa and/or US passport.

From Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of (an already occupied) America, to the Atlantic slave trade… from to the Trail of Tears, to the Annexation of Texas… it can be argued that all Americans lay very shaky claims to the citizenships we hold so dear. And given that very checkered past, I am more than a little reluctant to adopt a hard line approach regarding the next wave of immigrants yearning to breathe free and realize their own dreams of US citizenship.

As with most core beliefs, my viewpoints on immigration took shape at an early age. I can still vividly recall the day a letter addressed to Resident Alien was delivered to my childhood home in Mt. Vernon, NY. I was about six or seven-years-old at the time, and when my mother explained that the correspondence was neither a joke nor the result of a typo, all I could think was “There’s an alien living among us?”

Alas, it turns out the alien was my father.

While I was aware that my dad was born and raised on the island of Jamaica– as was my mother and every member of my extended family older than my siblings and me– it had never occurred to me that a person’s place of birth might be held against them…

…until that day.

Ultimately, my takeaway from two small words printed on a government form letter was that Daddy had been thrust upon the “them” pile of humanity… when any kid could tell you it was far better to be an “us,” if given a choice in the matter. Old enough to make the distinction, but far too young to process the mix of emotions the alien designation evoked in me– including anger, hurt, shame and a dawning sense of having been marginalized– the experience sensitized me and informed my sensibilities around the power of language to either hurt or heal others.

Of course, it would be naive of me to expect politicians, television and print media outlets to alter their language for the sake of being kind and respectful to all human beings. Although The Huffington Post, which stopped using the term “illegal immigrant” in 2008, gives me great hope!

Then again, given the ever-expanding purchasing power of Latinos in the United States (as well as their propensity to vote in relatively high numbers) it seems to me that self-interest might motivate anyone seeking Latino support going forward to pay attention to the writing on the wall, lest they find themselves on a path to irrelevance… right behind a one-time, would-be president whose time has come and gone.

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