Migration Matters: Learning the Language

September 15th to October 15th is National Hispanic Heritage Month. Last week, Central American nations celebrated their independence. This week, in recognition of these celebrations and the regional work between the US and Central America on migration, the Restoring Family Links Blog will be hosting a five-part series on general issues of migration within the Americas. Today’s story is contributed by Nadia Kalinchuk, Restoring Family Links Outreach Coordinator, Caseworker for the Americas and Migration Focal Point, who recently returned from travel to the Northern Triangle – El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

When I landed in San Salvador, I felt adequately prepared for the ten days ahead that would take me through the Northern Triangle of Central America, an area most recently garnering international attention due to the number of unaccompanied children leaving their homes with the goal of coming to the US. However, during my trip, I realized that the language in which I discussed the topic of the “recent humanitarian crisis along the border” needed re-examining. As the opening blog for a series on migration, it is extremely important to “re-frame” the language of borders and immigration.

On Borders

Within the US, the discussion on borders tends to focus on its own borders. Within this context, the discussion gets homogenized so that there is only the distinction of a US and Mexico border.  In reality, people are coming from countries south, east and west of Mexico and crossing many borders before then.  Migration impacts many communities, communities that are along the route as well as sending countries.  It is invaluable to take into consideration the entire scope of migration as a region because it tells a bigger, more robust, story. 

Deportados, Repatriados, y Retornados

The ways in which returning migrants are viewed is extremely shaped by the language used to label and describe them. While in San Salvador, my Red Cross colleagues and I sat down with Mr. César Ríos of the Instituto Salvadoreño del Migrante. As we spoke, I used the term deportados to refer to the returned migrants. Ríos quickly took the opportunity to explain the local discourse. He said that the term deportado has come to mean that the migrant is a criminal or has committed a criminal act and was thus deported.

The term has similar connotations to the use of the term “illegal” in the United States, often used to refer to people who come across the border undocumented. Labels such as deportados and “illegal” reduce people to actions and strip away their humanity by inferring criminal behavior. Using this language reinforces approaches to immigration issues by governments and communities that ignore the basic human needs of undocumented migrants.

Similarly, Ríos stated that the term, repatriado, or repatriated, does not adequately describe the struggles returning migrants face in integrating back into their communities, homes, and families.  Many returnees worked abroad to support their families back home. Once they return, they can be seen as a burden for the family to support.

This is further complicated if the migrant comes back after suffering a severe injury, which can happen if they are thrown from the train, La Bestia. While the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Red Cross Societies in the Northern Triangle provide support to these migrants by providing prosthetics, there remains stigma against the disabled and finding a job in nations with high rates of poverty and unemployment becomes exceedingly difficult. When the reason for migration includes economic opportunity, this can be particularly challenging to both the family and the migrant.

As such, the community serving and advocating for migrant rights often chooses to use the term retornado to describe the migrant’s return. Retornado describes the return of the migrant without putting any emphasis on the process in which they were returned.  It adds a dimension of humanity which the other terms lack.

No matter where you go, whether in the US, Central America, or pretty much everywhere else, the language used to discuss borders and immigration often reflects political agendas. Being a part of the Red Cross Movement, I have had the opportunity to apply the Fundamental Principles of neutrality and humanity to this language – looking at how the very words we use to discuss migration often subjects us to political positions, and how we can alter those words to insure that the humanity of migrants is at the forefront of the conversation.