Things That Matter

Because Words Matter: NYC Votes To Ban The Words ‘Alien’ And ‘Illegal Immigrant’ From All Official Documents

When you hear the word’s ‘alien’ or ‘illegal immigrant’ used to describe a person, what goes through your mind? For many, these terms have been used to dehumanize and isolate migrant communities. Like so many other pejoratives used against minority communities, often times the intent is to create division.

We all recognize that words matter. So this small victory in New York City, where they’ve decided to ban the terms from all official documents is a huge step forward for the city’s migrant communities.

New York just became the largest city in the U.S. to ban the official use of the terms.

The New York City Council has voted to ban city officials and its law enforcement department from using the terms ‘alien’ and ‘illegal immigrant’ to refer to undocumented migrants in all official city documents.

In a 46-4 vote in favor of the bill on Thursday, the Council passed the measure sponsored by Queens Councilmember Francisco Moya.

“These words are outdated and loaded words used to dehumanize the people they describe. It’s time to retire them,” Council Member Francisco Moya said. The words will be prohibited from use in local laws, rules and documents and replaced with the term ‘noncitizen.’

Words matter,” Moya added. “The language we choose to use has power and consequences. It’s time we as a city use our language to acknowledge people as people rather than to dehumanize them and divide us.”

The words have long been used to sow division so here’s why it’s such an important move.

Credit: David Zalubowski / Getty

The words and language we use determines the nature of a conversation. Terms like ‘alien’ and ‘illegal’, which so many of us grew up hearing on the radio and on TV, have an isolating, disorientating, dehumanizing effect and can really impact one’s identity.

New York isn’t the only place in the country working to undo the decisive rhetoric. Across the country, politicians and immigration activists are taking aim at the rhetoric etched into official documents.

At the national level, United States Representative Joaquin Castro, Democrat of Texas, introduced a bill in July that would replace “alien” and “illegal alien” with “foreign national” and “undocumented foreign national” in one of the country’s main immigration laws.

The vote comes after the NY state Human Rights Commission prohibited their use to demean someone.

Credit: New York City Council / Flickr

In late 2019, the New York Commission on Human Rights created a new rule that prohibited the use of the terms ‘illegal alien’ or ‘illegals’ with the “intent to demean, humiliate or harass a person.”

The guidance also made it illegal to harass or discriminate against “someone for their use of another language or their limited English proficiency, and threatening to call Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE ) on a person based on a discriminatory motive.”

The vote was nearly unanimous, however four council members voted no on the rule change.

The new rule had bipartisan, wide-ranking support on the city council and passed with a vote of 46-4. However, four council members did vote no on the measure –Robert Holden of Queens, Kalman Yeger of Brooklyn, and Staten Island lawmakers Joseph Borelli and Steven Matteo.

Holden told the New York Post the Council was “overstepping our bounds here prohibiting certain terms.”

“It’s like the speech police is out again,” he said. “’Alien’ is a term used for someone who is from another area, another land. That’s a term used in Congress and in the government.”

But it’s worth noting that other pejorative terms have been removed from government documents as people better understood the hurtful connotations.

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Puerto Rico’s Governor Signs New Law That Removes Many Of The Island’s Protections For Women And The LGBTQ Community

Things That Matter

Puerto Rico’s Governor Signs New Law That Removes Many Of The Island’s Protections For Women And The LGBTQ Community

Ricardo Arduengo / Getty Images

Until recently, Puerto Rico had several laws on the books that dated all the way back to when it was a Spanish colony – some 130 years ago. It was widely acknowledged that the island’s civil code needed to be updated. However, the territory’s unelected governor has just signed into law an updated civil code that many say strips away hard won civil rights protections for women and the LGBTQ community.

Gov. Wanda Vázquez signed into law updates to the civil code that put several communities at risk.

Credit: Carlos Giusti / Getty

This week, the island’s governor, Wanda Vázquez, signed into law a sweeping overhaul of the territory’s civil code – and in doing so, many say legal protections for at-risk communities have been wiped away.

The civil code hadn’t been updated since the 1930s, and many of the island’s old laws dated back to when the island was still a Spanish colony. Therefore, many experts agree that there was a need to update several laws in a way that reflects today’s modern society.

After Puerto Rico’s constitution, the island’s civil code is the most significant legal document in the territory. But the new civil code infringes upon the “human rights gains of women and LGBTQI+ people” by giving rights to fetuses, limiting people’s ability to amend their birth certificates in ways that are consistent with their gender identities and failing to “explicitly prohibit discrimination,” according to the advocacy group Comité Amplio para la Búsqueda de Equidad, which loosely translates to the Committee for Equity.

Law experts and civil rights activists were quick to express concern and outrage over the move.

Everyone from legal experts and civil rights activists to Puerto Rican celebrities (including Ricky Martin) have spoken out against the update and many say some of the laws represent a historical setback. In fact, the word “discrimination” doesn’t appear in the new civil code at all.

“Puerto Rico’s governor signed into law significant revisions to the island’s civil codes that shamefully ignore the urgent calls of local advocates to explicitly include vital, comprehensive non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ residents,” said Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David in a statement. “The government has failed to carry out its primary duty of ensuring the safety and well-being of all Puerto Ricans, including LGBTQ Puerto Ricans.”

The move also comes as Puerto Rico’s LGBTQ community – especially the trans community – is under increased attack.

The new civil code, which doesn’t even mention the word discrimination, was signed into law just as the island is experiencing a severe uptick in violence against LGBTQ Puerto Ricans.

Five transgender Puerto Ricans have been killed in the U.S. commonwealth since the beginning of 2020. These include Serena Angelique Velázquez and Layla Pelaz, two trans women who were murdered in April in Humacao before their bodies were placed inside a car that was set on fire.

In what seems like a direct attack on the trans community, the new civil code prohibits people from changing the sex they were assigned at birth in their original birth certificates. That, according to the Committee for Equity, is effectively “jeopardizing the rights of trans people.”

Victoria Rodríguez-Roldán, a lawyer and the director of the nonprofit Trans/Gender Non-Conforming Justice Project at the National LGBTQ Task Force, told NBC News that “this type of action by the government, the Legislature, and the rhetoric that comes from the religious right inflicts physical harm” on trans people because it fuels “hate crimes and allows families to reject their trans relatives.”

Puerto Rico’s trans community had finally won some serious legal rights – these are being set back with the new laws.

Since 2018, transgender people in Puerto Rico have been able to correct their birth certificates to reflect their gender identities after winning a 15-year legal battle in federal court. Since then, a trans person can go to the Demographic Registry with an order from a social worker or a medical professional “who puts their credentials on the line” guaranteeing that a person lives with the gender of their preference.

The new civil code seems to roll back those protections when it says “no amendments to the sex a person was born with can be authorized in the original birth certificate,” adding that a court is the only entity with the power to “make an annotation next to the original sex designation” if a person wishes to correct their designation after birth.

The new civil code could also infringe upon the rights of women to maintain control over their health and body.

As a U.S. territory, Puerto Rico is subject to Supreme Court rulings – so abortion rights continue to exist on the island through the Roe v. Wade ruling.

However, the new civil code recognizes an unborn child’s “condition as a person,” adding that it’s “considered born for all the effects that are favorable to him or her.” Granting rights to an unborn child means that the government could intervene and place more obstacles later on. Several experts agree that it opens the door to start limiting abortions in Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico is no stranger to such efforts. Over the past year, conservative lawmakers have tried to pass legislation to limit women’s access to abortions. Rep. María Milagros “Tata” Charbonier, president of the commission within Puerto Rico’s House in charge of creating the new civil code, supported bills looking to limit abortions. She also spearheaded an unsuccessful attempt to block same-sex marriage in Puerto Rico after the Supreme Court legalized it in 2015.

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A Transgender Activist Leader Has Passed Away From Covid-19 And Her Community Mourns A Great Loss

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A Transgender Activist Leader Has Passed Away From Covid-19 And Her Community Mourns A Great Loss

@NYCSpeakerCoJo / Twitter

New York City has been ravaged by the Covid-19 pandemic and it has claimed a long list of victims. But one of the most high-profile losses has come this week as the city’s LGBTQ community mourns a major loss.

A pillar of New York City’s Latinx LGBTQ community, Borjas had long been known as a staunch defender of the rights of trans people, Latinx people, undocumented people and sex workers.

And now her beloved NYC LGBTQ community is mourning a huge loss during an already unprecedented crisis.

Beloved NYC transgender advocate Lorena Borjas has died after contracting Covid-19.

Borjas died on Monday, at Coney Island Hospital, in Brooklyn, of complications from Covid-19. Just a few weeks ago, Borjas set up a fund for trans-people who had lost their jobs to COVID-19, the disease caused by novel coronavirus.

She left an orphaned community of transgender women, especially Latina immigrant women in Queens, and countless LGBTQ-rights activists who looked to her for guidance, inspiration, and love.

“Lorena Borjas was a real hero for trans people, especially in Queens. She was a leader, a builder and a healer,” Mara Keisling, the executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said in a statement. “The NCTE family is saddened by her passing and has her broad family and the Queens Latinx community in our hearts today.”

Activists and community leaders across New York City took to social media after the news of her death broke.

Adding an additional level of heartbreak, her memorial was hosted on digital meeting platform Zoom – a departure from her normal community building. More than 200 people attended the online memorial to share in her legacy of community-building, and joined together to take close, personal care of people across the community.

Originally from Mexico, Borjas has been called the mother of the transgender Latinx community in New York.

Credit: @NYCSpeakerCoJo / Twitter

At seventeen, she ran away to Mexico City, where she lived in the streets. At twenty, she crossed the border into the United States, where she hoped she would be able to receive hormone treatments. She made her way to New York City, where she studied for her GED and then studied accounting.

Lorena fought tirelessly for the rights and well-being of LGBTQ people, immigrant communities and sex workers. Lorena Borjas started a mutual aid fund for members of the transgender community who were suffering financial hardship during the coronavirus crisis.

Borjas had been a prominent community organizer and health educator for decades, working to end human trafficking, which she herself survived, according to the Transgender Law Center. In 2017, she received a rare pardon from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo for a conviction she received in the 1990s while being trafficked, with Gov. Cuomo praising her advocacy work in New York state. (The conviction had put Borjas, a Mexican national, at high risk of deportation.)

An outpouring of grief came from all directions.

Credit: Cristina Herrera / Facebook

Her loss has inspired tributes from countless activists and leaders, including Rep.  Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, New York Attorney General Letitia James, New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and blogger Monica Roberts. “Lorena spent her life tirelessly fighting and supporting our trans sisters, making sure they were treated with dignity and respect they deserve,” Make the Road New York, an organization that fights for immigrant and working class communities, said in a statement. “We will truly miss her. May she rest in power and love.”

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