At a personal level, watching and reading these news stories is deeply painful. I too, came to this country as a child. I was lucky enough to be able to come with my mother and siblings, but know very well the experience of having to cross the border in search of a better future. For many years as a kid, before I became involved in the immigrant rights movement, I saw the same images and rhetoric on TV. I knew they were talking about people like me—but I didn’t see myself in those images. I never saw my humanity reflected in those stories. We were being called “illegal,” “aliens,” “invaders”—I can go on and on.
Because of that, I decided to share my story publicly. No matter how re-traumatizing and difficult it was to share my story over and over again, I felt like I had no other choice. I thought that the only way for me to help reform our immigration system was to prove to this country that I was human enough. That I, like many people in this country, had dreams and aspirations. I felt compelled to open up my childhood wounds over and over again and tell the world about the violence I experienced with my own father, in order for Americans to empathize with me and not allow their government to detain me or deport me.
I still share my story and have learned to be OK with it—but it shouldn’t have to be this way. A few weeks ago, as I was watching the news and grieving the death of more innocent people at the hands of armed white supremacists, I started to notice the constant question being asked and the answers that were given. Who was he? Why did he do it? Was it his mental health? Does he have family?
The answer that captured what many people in this country wanted to hear came from a police officer: “He was having a really bad day.” This white man who killed eight people was immediately heard and understood.
Hearing that answer made me break down in tears. We, as immigrants, have been demonized, dehumanized and blamed for most problems in this country. Children are traveling thousands of miles to a country they have never known in order to escape poverty and violence. Families are selling everything they own, so they can help their children seek a better life in America. Every single one of us has a story to tell, but we hardly ever hear those questions when it comes to immigrants and asylum seekers.
Can you imagine if immigrants were humanized in the media as much as these mass shooters? There would be no “surge.” There would be no “security crisis.”
This isn’t the first time I’ve felt this way. I still can’t forget the day another white supremacists traveled to El Paso and killed 23 people. This was the deadliest attack to target Latinos in modern American history. There is no question this attack was motivated by hatred against our community, and yet again, many headlines and commentary focused on his mental health—on his humanity.
Unfortunately, the dehumanization of whole groups of people for the purposes of attacking them in the United States and across the world is nothing new. As Isabel Wilkerson points out in her book Caste, the creation of a dominant caste depends upon the dehumanization of the other. This is why Donald Trump was able to do so much harm to the immigrant community—and why he got away with it. The way in which the media has portrayed immigrants and asylum seekers for decades, has real impact in the lives of people. Kids were ripped apart from their parents at the border in 2018 because many people in this country were okay with it. They believe that, as Jeanine Pirro said on Fox News, these kids are a “lower level of human being.”
The media has to do better. Immigration policy is complicated, but it is crucial that the stories we tell about migrants come from a deep understanding of the issues. Instead, the Trump wing of the Republican Party sees spreading panic about a supposed “crisis” at the border as a way to rally its base of white supremacists. Unfortunately, most media coverage has simply held up a megaphone to their lies and their attempts to dehumanize migrant children and their families—people like me and our undocumented community. This has to stop before someone else having a “bad day” decides to turn his hatred on us.