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Our View: From ‘undocumented’ to ‘mixed-immigration status’

Getting language right in covering immigrant community

One word can carry so much weight. In this case, it’s the word “undocumented.”

Enrique Orozco, community advocate with Compañeros, brought this to the attention of reporters and editors at The Durango Herald recently, when the word “undocumented,” used in a direct quote, was included in a story. “Undocumented” can “out people in jeopardy of being deported,” Orozco said. The word undocumented could intentionally or unintentionally point toward someone’s immigration status. “We don’t want to say where people are living,” he said. “Some people have papers and some people do not.”

Orozco prefers “mixed-immigration status,” which is closer to what an extended family looks like, spanning a range of immigration statuses. The reality is that in one family, one person may be a resident, another may hold a green card, another may be a citizen. Another may be undocumented. Each person in a different situation. Some more at risk than others.

Certainly, in talking about human beings, undocumented defines a level of immigration status. Casually mentioning a particular person in our community as undocumented is something else, with sometimes heartbreaking consequences.

That anxious, sick, drop-in-the-stomach feeling remains for many every time someone they love walks out the door. In 2006, Colorado was one of the first states to pass a “show me your papers law,” requiring police to report those suspected of living in the country without legal permission to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. Being brown was enough of a reason to be questioned. The law, fundamentally flawed with language reminiscent of a police state, was repealed in 2013. But the residual fear remains.

ICE Director of Communications Alethea Smock, Northwest Region, wrote in an email that ICE focuses on the “apprehension and removal of noncitizens who pose a threat to our national security, public safety and border security.” In other words, not most people who are undocumented. “Baseless, false or retaliatory reports are quickly discovered during the initial investigation phase and disregarded,” Smock said.

Still, immigrants shared stories of intimidation with Orozco, especially before COVID-19.

The latest U.S. Census Bureau figures show Durango with a population that is 86% white, 7.6% Native American and 9.5% Hispanic or Latino.

An undocumented population in the Durango area “contributes to this town like people don’t understand,” Orozco said. Any time we walk into a clean office or order food in restaurants or spend a day on the slopes, our immigrant community had a hand in that experience. Still, Immigrants still feel that they’re “not part of this community,” he said. “It’s important to have that respect for them.”

Some good news: City Council added a Spanish-speaking interpreter and the U.S. Highway 160 west bus route, which served a significant immigrant population, reopened.

Meanwhile, Orozco has much to keep him busy. “The work I’m doing here is way harder than in any big city,” he said.

This is telling, especially being profiled himself, as a teen. Orozco, Colombian-American, was born in New Jersey. While in high school, he and a Black friend, driving a Mercedes that had belonged to his friend’s father, were stopped by police on suspicion the vehicle was stolen. While wearing Catholic high school uniforms with polo shirts, the teens were cuffed, separated and Orozco’s friend was pushed to the ground.

“I didn’t have to go to school to use this career,” said Orozco, who graduated from the University of Delaware. “My life is my curriculum.”

We each have our own lens. There are ways to do journalism without exposing immigrants. A conscious word choice has the potential to make a huge difference in other people’s lives. One word can contain a universe.