Monday, April 11, 2016

Tiny tweak, big message about human dignity

At first glance, HB 16-1396, passed recently by the Democratic-controlled Colorado House, looked like one of those pointless and petty bills -- like Congress' designating National Tap Dance Day (May 20).

However, I've thought about HB 16-1396 a little more. I now realize it isn't pointless, it isn't petty, and it's not a small matter. It's as big as we aspire to be.

Procedurally, the bill is only a tiny tweak to Colorado law. It would remove "illegal alien" from all laws, just as California removed the word "alien" from labor laws.

From a logistics point of view, it's no big deal. Now watch opponents make a big deal out of it. Because, of course, we aren't talking about logistics.

The bill's rationale has been expressed often in such phrases as, "Human beings aren't illegal," and, "Aliens are from outer space."

On the other side, we'll quote State Rep. Justin Everett, R-Littleton: "It's that PC thing that's being pushed."

Ah, yes -- "politically correct" -- two words that, in full sneer, made Donald Trump instantly presidential to some.

The general thrust of opposition to HB 16-1396 is that, if we soften our language, in effect we'll be rolling out the red carpet for people who aren't welcome. This is why, by the way, the chances of the bill's passage are slim to none in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Of course, the intent isn't to soften immigration laws (something over which the state Legislature has no control). This is about words of respect vs. words that degrade. (The bill would change "illegal alien" to "undocumented immigrant" or "foreign national.")

At its essence, the impulse to call people "illegal" or "alien" advances the inclination to think of outsiders as bad people. Your experience may differ, but having worked with and having been served by innumerable undocumented individuals (and who hasn't?) for just about all of them that's not just factually wrong; it's morally wrong.

It's as wrong as using "savages" to denote the original Americans. It's as wrong as using "ragheads" for our friends of Muslim heritage. It's as wrong as "chinks" and "spics," and of course the N-word.

I'll suggest that if the term "PC" were around a lifetime ago when most of us got the above slurs out of our systems, the hangers-on would have denounced the change as "political correctness run amok."

Well, get incensed, all you hardliners. Recently the Library of Congress announced it would cease using "illegal alien" in its bibliographic listings.

Texas Congressman Joaquin Castro has authored a bill to eliminate the term from federal regulations. Fat chance that it will get anywhere in a House controlled by those whose fine-tuned lingo appeals to that good old bigotry in men, whether referring to people of color, of Muslim heritage, or a sexual orientation that varies from their own.

Whatever the case, it is right to expel "illegal alien" from our legal nomenclature. After that, we can work on our personal nomenclature.

Granted, it's a puny thing, except for the big message in, "All men are created equal." That, by the way, could be read to mean, "No man is created illegal."

Longtime newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email:

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