Photo by Robert Haasch
I was born in Germany, I grew up in Michigan, I lived in Florida for fifteen years, and then I moved to Arizona in 2005. What is wrong with that sentence? Actually nothing unless you are wondering why we moved around so much.
The part that got left out is that after being born in Germany, I also lived in Pennsylvania part of that time, I lived in five different places in Michigan, I lived in Pennsylvania for another year, I then lived in six different places in Florida, and so far have lived in two different towns in Arizona.
I'm probably more of a migrant than most immigrants I've met.
One night last September at a planning meeting for Occupy Phoenix, one of the organizers mentioned that we should be careful not to use the I-word. My immediate thought was that "Yes, I agree, we should not call immigrants illegal." Which is a reference to the push to get media to stop using the word "illegal" in reference to immigrants (http://colorlines.com/droptheiword/).
Then she mentioned that we should not use the word immigrant and use the word migrant instead. I've heard this said before but it threw me for a loop because I was self-righteously thinking that I was right on board and then got hit with a rope-a-dope.
I've been hesitant to jump on that band wagon for several reasons. So the thought of what a better alternative should be has been running around in my head.
I'm having a hard time coming up with one so let me explain my thought process and then I want to see what you think. So bear with me. I'm not disagreeing with the concept but after thinking about it for a bit, it occurred to me that we as "American citizens" rarely use the word in reference to ourselves even though we are likely a better description of it than anyone.
Where does the word immigrant originate? Let's explore that first.
According to dictionary.com, the word immigrant is a noun referring to "a person who migrates to another country, usually for permanent residence." The root word behind immigrant is the word migrant. The verb version is migrate meaning "to go from one country, region, or place to another." Therefore a migrant is "a person or animal that migrates." That is a pretty basic description, right?
Well, it gets a little more involved. There is another, less commonly used word to describe people who migrate. That word is emigrant. To emigrate is "to leave one country or region to settle in another." Therefore an emigrant is someone who has emigrated. We rarely hear the usage of this term in the United States because we are more acclimated to the idea of people coming in rather than those who are leaving.
There is one term for coming into a country or region (immigrate), there is another term for leaving a country or region (emigrate), and there is the root term that includes both concepts (migrate). In reality, all these terms do is describe the direction in which migration is happening from a fixed reference point (the residents who are native).
So to me, using one term over another is basically equal. However, there is another way of looking at this that most of us do not think about.
Let's go back to the opening sentence of this article: "I was born in Germany, I grew up in Michigan, I lived in Florida for fifteen years, and then I moved to Arizona in 2005."
It could be re-written: "I was born in Germany, I immigrated to Michigan, I immigrated into Florida for fifteen years, and then I emigrated from Florida to Arizona in 2005 where I currently live."
So here is the issue. Who actually talks like that? While speaking to any person who moved from another state, have you ever heard them say it that way? If they did, you would look at them funny. And yet, at the same time, do you hear people say things like "I was born in Mexico City, grew up in Nogales, and moved to Phoenix in 2005?" Instead you sometimes hear statements like "I was born in Mexico and immigrated to the US in 2005."
So instead of using the terms immigrant, emigrant, or migrant, why not just say we are people who simply moved here. It does create the issue of using more words to describe the action of moving from one place to another but we already do it. We only use the variants of migrant when we want to refer to someone who is not native to our region, or perhaps want to relegate them to a secondary class of less importance.
I suppose it would be too easy to refer to new residents on equal terms. It would make the native residents (nativists) uncomfortable because then they would have to confront the simple fact that people are people and that they are no more special than those who just moved here.
So here is the tricky part. How do we condense the issue of migration into one or two words? I sometimes use the term immigration to categorize news photos I take. I think this may be easier said than done but it is worth a shot to try to figure it out. Words mean something.