Opinion Zimbabwe

Zim-SA immigration: ‘How can a human being be illegal?’

By Taona Denhere

Zimbabweans trying to enter South Africa at Beitbridge border post.

The recent gridlock of south-bound human traffic at Beitbridge border post has once again reignited the debate surrounding the emotive, divisive, and controversial issue of immigration and migration. That is, the fault lines of a dichotomous, mutually exclusive relationships of ingroups and outgroups or insider and outsider belongingness resurfaced again. Accordingly, the dramatic and traumatic scenes at Beitbridge border post, where the disposable denizens from Zimbabwe are prevented easy and smooth access to the southern side of Limpopo river due to the discrepancies associated with their immigration status.

Consequently, this has led to the blanket hyperbolic social stratification of those denizens as “illegal immigrants”. Therefore, this opinion piece attempts to delineate the problematic nature associated with the term ‘illegal immigrant’ and its associated exigences and proffers the politically correct and immigrant-friendly moralizing terminology.

The terminology “illegal immigrant” predates Trumpian nativism. It in fact dates back to the aftermath of the apocalypse of World War II when it became associated with the Jewish refugees, who without authorisation fled to the safety, tranquility and sanctuary of Palestine. After they had been traumatically, socially, economically and physically dislocated and displaced by the Holocaust of Nazi Germany. Accordingly, a
Jewish Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Elie Wiesel, rhetorically opined: “Know that no human being is illegal. That is a contradiction in terms. Human beings can be beautiful or move beautifully, they can be fat or skinny, they can be right or wrong, but illegal? How can a human being be illegal?

Thus, the word illegal is an adjective. However, in the emotive discourse of immigration it has been recklessly deployed with dehumanising dog whistle undertones as a noun. That is, rather than adjectively describe the action or a commission of illegal eventuality, it pejoratively dehumanises, delegitimises and demonises immigrants. Ultimately, it desensitises and divorces the host nation’s citizens from empathising and viewing immigrants as human beings.

Therefore, it is grammatically, scholarly, politically, and journalistically incorrect and inaccurate to prefix immigrants with illegal. Consequently, these deinstitutionalised subalterns are forced to circumvent the official entry and exit routes at Beitbridge border post and other points of entry and exit. Thus, they resort to using unconventional routes, methods and tactics as they breach South African borders and other neighbouring borders. Nonetheless, they cannot be classified as illegal immigrants.

A very good paradox to contextualise the criminalising and dehumanising nature of the term ‘illegal immigrant’ is to look at the everyday example of civic infringements. For instance, a lot of us have subconsciously crossed busy roads and highways without using official crossing points like zebra crossings or traffic lights and pedestrian controlled crossings. Nevertheless, we have never been criminalised as
illegal pedestrians. Neither is the driver who overspeeds in a speed restricted road classified as an illegal driver. Moreover, a good number of South African employers hire and employ the so-called ‘illegal immigrants’ but they have never been labelled as illegal employers.

Recklessly and casually dropping the ‘I’ bombs (Illegal) bombs on immigrants automatically puts them in harm’s way. Particularly in the belly of the beast of xeno-racism violence and hate crime. That is, the ‘I’ bomb on immigrants will make them be perceived as justifiable targets for discriminate xeno-racism, hate-filled
anti-foreigner attacks.

Therefore, the ‘I’ bomb becomes a testosterone supercharged pyrotechnic that can explode with devastating consequences on immigrants and migrants, especially on resource and infrastructure stricken, poverty and crime ridden ghettoized townships of South Africa. This has been demonstrated by the periodic reignition and flaming of smouldering embers of xenophobic violence and property destruction in these ground zero spaces of post-apartheid, arrested socioeconomic development and strangulation.

Furthermore, the ‘I’ bomb acts as the conveyor belt of rightwing identitarian bio-power of Trumpian nativism. Hence, the reason the supposedly centre-right Democratic Alliance latched into far and hard right mode when it platformed its 2019 General Election campaign on a domesticated Trumpianism of “Secure Our
Borders”. Consequently, the domino effect of the inhumane and callous throwing of the ‘I’ bomb on immigrants is further exemplified by the mega-Trumpian rhetoric which is spewed by former DA senior politician Herman Mashaba, whose incendiary xenophobic laced anti-immigrant speech is plucked from Trump’s xenophobic political rule book.

This then inevitably leads us to what humane sensitive terminology we can deploy to neutralise and defuse the ‘I’ bomb. Accordingly, in the Global North there has been a conscientising and educating and push-back campaign called #WordsMatterInitiative which progressively argues that the language and the words we use in defining immigrants and migrants have a life and death consequences on migrant communities in their host nations.

Therefore, in order to rehumanise immigrants who have been under constant attack from rightwing xenophobic shock troops, we need and must categorise them as undocumented immigrants or unauthorised immigrants. Consequently, mainstream liberal media organisations in the Global North like Associated Press (AP), The Guardian, Huffington Post, The Independent, USA Today, and The Los Angeles Times have adopted the term unauthorised immigrants in their editorial policies rather than “illegal immigrants”.

They opted for unauthorised immigrants instead of undocumented migrants because immigrants, despite using unauthorised entry points or overstayed in their host country, nevertheless possess some forms of documentation like passports, birth certificates, educational certificates or their national identity cards or asylum seekers and refugee documents.

Additionally, in the progressive pro-immigration discourse, a new immigration friendly and moralising terminology emerged. That is, unauthorised immigrants are now referred to as people living in the country illegally instead of “illegal immigrants. This is premised on the moral basis of referring to people’s behaviour rather than attach labels to them because of their behaviour.

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