On Saturday, January 3, the Santa Barbara News-Press published the headline “Illegals line up for driver’s licenses” with a front-page story concerning a new California law (Assembly Bill 60) that allows unauthorized immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses. The law protects public safety by ensuring all California drivers are tested and certified by the state. The large picture published with the story showed more than 20 people — all non-white, Latino-looking — in line at a Department of Motor Vehicles office. One major problem is that the presentation implies that all those in the picture are “illegal.” This News-Press story was so disturbing that even Cosmopolitan magazine posted a response on January 5 on its website, asking, “Did a Newspaper Really Print This Offensive Headline?”
What if a third-generation Latino American or a Chumash American (many of whom look Mexican or Latino) had been at the DMV that day to renew a driver’s license and appeared in the picture? Readers could easily assume that they were “illegal,” outsiders in their own community. Did the News-Press confirm that everyone in line had indeed broken a law? And even if they did confirm that these people had broken the law, their headline should have been different. Presenting a photograph of a random group of Latinos as illegal feeds and breeds intolerance. The Associated Press (AP), the world’s oldest and largest news-gathering organization, no longer uses the term “illegal” to refer to unauthorized immigrants. The AP finds that referring to people as illegal is inaccurate and that only behavior can be veraciously labeled as illegal. Why can’t the News-Press adopt these professional standards?
Indeed, using the term “illegal” to describe immigrants who have entered the country without authorization or who have overstayed their visas places a label of criminality on human bodies rather than human actions. Human beings are not themselves illegal, although their actions may be. While some may have broken a law by entering the country without documentation or overstaying their official welcome, they must be provided the opportunity to redeem themselves and reconcile their actions. In addition, we should not take out our wrath and bias towards legal transgressors by inferring that all brown people are illegal outsiders. And what about the children of unauthorized immigrants? Should we condemn these fellow U.S. citizens for presumed law-breaking acts their parents may have committed?
To insinuate that an entire population of people is illegal because of their skin color suggests that they are less than human, and that is egregious, unethical, and reminiscent of 20th-century Southern-style racism. The News-Press’ action has the potential to promote racial divisiveness in Santa Barbara by perpetuating the idea that some people, based on skin color, are not worthy of belonging in our community and should be seen as criminal suspects and second-class citizens (just read the comments section in this and any other commentary about this story). As a father raising three brown-skinned, fifth-generation American children in Santa Barbara, I am disheartened that they might see this cover story and read the message that their fellow citizens and local, storied institutions like the News-Press might one day presume they are illegal outsiders simply because they resemble the people in this cover photo.
When we label people who are part of a larger racial group as illegal, this larger group (in this case Americans of Mexican or Chumash descent) finds itself in a cycle of dehumanization and criminalization. Recent research by Rene Flores, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Michigan, showed that anti-immigrant language — like the label “illegal” — not only affects how citizens feel about unauthorized immigrants, but also creates overall anti-Latino sentiment. Labeling people as “illegal” has devastating consequences on the children of unauthorized immigrants and on fellow Americans who happen to have a darker skin complexion.
We must demand that local institutions like the News-Press change the way they cover stories on Latinos. Undocumented individuals already live in the shadows, have few rights, and are the subject of much disdain and contention in national and local politics. Instead of dehumanizing fellow Santa Barbara residents and contributing to racial divisiveness, the News-Press should be building bridges of understanding in our community and providing us with tools to solve the problems of law, immigration, and inequality that our community faces. Latinos are human, too. An apology from the News-Press and a commitment to promote communal and cultural harmony in Santa Barbara is more than overdue.
Dr. Victor Rios is a professor of Sociology at UC Santa Barbara.