Basic Presumptions and Words Matter

Margaret Somerville
Originally published as:
"Demonizing illegal immigrants hurts us, too",
The [Montreal] Gazette, January 30, 1999, B5
© Margaret Somerville
Reproduced with Permission

Basic presumptions matter: They set the ethical and legal tone of a society. Canada works from a basic presumption of respect for human rights, including in the immigration context. Therefore, Canada gives people who claim refugee status the chance to prove that they are genuine refugees. Diane Francis ("Ottawa failing to protect us from dangerous refugees", The Gazette, Montreal, Sunday, January 24, 1999) believes, however, that Canada is too soft in its approach and wants this to change. All approaches carry harms and risks, it is a matter of choosing among these. We have chosen to use procedures that create a risk that unmeritorious people might remain in Canada. The alternative is to risk excluding genuine refugees who, as a result, face torture or death. Anyone who cares about respect for human rights in the immigration context must choose the Canadian approach.

We use certain psychological mechanisms to feel justified in treating others in ways that would appal us if we were treated in the same way. In order to treat other people wrongfully, we depersonalize and disidentify from them (they are not "us" and we could never be "them"), and stigmatize, scapegoat, and demonize them. Indeed, unless we suffer from some form of psychopathology, these processes are usually essential to our intentionally harming others. They are the antidotes to feeling empathy, compassion and tolerance towards those others, and allow a person engaging in wrongful treatment of them to see this as justified.

These harmful processes are often implemented through our choice of language, which is never neutral. It is, therefore, noteworthy that Ms. Francis characterizes illegal immigrants, whom the government has ordered deported for a variety of reasons, as "the undesirable" (a term that is reminiscent of "the untouchables"). In describing people derogatorily, we often drop the use of the word person - for example, juvenile delinquents, the aged, the mentally retarded, mental incompetents (we do not speak of mental competents, rather, we use the term mentally competent persons). We do not see such people primarily as persons; rather we see them as embodiments of the derogatory classification we have attached to them and only secondarily, if at all, as persons like us.

But Diane Francis goes further. She also describes illegal immigrants as "these sleazes", and sees them as transgressing "the sanctity of Canadian borders" (the necessary implication is that we are all "holy" and "pure" on this side). She says, "[p]redictably, [they] disappear into the muck they came from and end up doing burglaries, muggings, prostitution or defrauding banks or welfare offices to make ends meet. ... Others...disappear into their communities...contributing absolutely nothing to this country except babies." It is difficult to conclude whether Ms. Francis regards the latter as a benefit to Canada or a harm, but in light of the tone of her article as a whole, it would seem that she regards them as a harm. If so, because babies, in general, are usually considered to be a benefit (especially in a country that sees itself as needing immigrants), it would seem that only the fact that these are the babies of "sleazes" makes Ms. Francis consider them to be a harm. Surely Diane Francis is not espousing eugenics? She concludes by recommending that "[r]etroactive action should be taken to turf out the rubbish [the group of immigrants she describes] that has been let in."

Canada, like all other countries, has a right to protect itself from the entry of people who are likely to cause it harm, and a duty to protect its citizens from such people. This means that some people must be refused entry to Canada. But we need to be very careful how we view and describe such people. We do harm to ourselves, in particular our capacity to respect other humans, and to our values, by gratuitously denigrating any people and not according them basic human respect, no matter how much we might, rightly or wrongly in any given case, despise them.

My research assistant, Sarah Wilson, and I have just finished a three-year research project that has resulted in a paper called "Crossing Boundaries: Travel, Immigration, Human Rights and AIDS", that is about to be published in the McGill Law Journal. We examined how Canada and the United States have used medical inadmissibility criteria to deny entry to visitors and potential immigrants to each country. Our research found many examples, over the history of modern immigration, of individual and societal attitudes, values and beliefs, expressed through the approaches taken to immigration, that do not accord with the human rights standards that we purport to uphold. Often, the language used in conveying these attitudes, values and beliefs was analogous to that used by Ms. Francis.

Potential immigrants are an easy, frequent and popular target for the wrongs that are perceived to be present in one's society: These people are usually powerless and, if our efforts to exclude them are successful, they will never have any influence in the society. We concluded, from our research, that we need to take much greater, not less, care if we are to respect human rights to the degree that we should in the context of immigration. We need to consider the content and tone of articles such as that written by Diane Francis, in this light.