My family and I recently engaged in an interesting conversation about immigrants. It is wrong, my daughter Ruthie asserted, to refer to any human being as illegal.
I suggested to her that the word merely describes reality, that people who come to this country through a porous border have, in fact, acted illegally, as have those who overstay their visas. Illegalsare those who have acted illegally.
Ruthie was unconvinced. And she was right.
The words we use about people color our understanding of them, our beliefs about them. If we call someone “anillegal,” using “illegal” not as an adjective but as a noun, we have defined them as illegal at their essence. They may not have immigrated in legal manner but they are not illegal people. They should not be called illegals.
I made the same point when Prime Minister Netanyahu employed the word mistananim, infiltrators, to refer to the roughly 30,000 refugees from African nations who have settled in Israel. It is a nasty word. Yes, they arrived in Israel and stayed without ever receiving asylum. (Barely 2 percent, by the way, even received the benefit of asylum hearings.) But the word infiltratorspossesses a nefarious ring. It is dehumanizing.
The immigration problem at our southern border is complicated. Many administrations – Democrat and Republican – have tried to solve it, with little success.
As complicated as it is, though, we must never forget that the folks showing up on our southern border – and crossing it – are human beings. They have stories. They have loved ones. They have dreams. They have inestimable worth.
This includes those who make it past the border undetected. It includes those who are in our custody. And it includes those who drown attempting to cross the Rio Grande, like the father and baby daughter who died holding each other this week.
Our tradition is full of admonitions to protect immigrants, and it is replete with stories about them. Ruth – the first convert to Judaism – was a hungry outsider when she crossed the border of the Promised Land, begging for food. It was she, that needy immigrant, who would become the matriarch from whose line the messiah – speedily and in our days! – will be born.
Friends, let us choose our words carefully! All human beings are created b’tzelem Elokim, in the image of God. May our words honor that sacred truth.
Rabbi Jeffrey Weill