After spending a year in prison, 17 year-old Pedro Hernandez of the Bronx, has been set free. Hernandez was arrested for the shooting of another teenager back in 2015. When he went to trial, instead of taking a plea bargain that would have set him free and allowed him to take advantage of a college scholarship, he maintained his innocence. His bail was set to $250,000 and his trial date pushed back beyond the date he needed to be a free man in order to accept the scholarship, in essence, losing it. Although things looked bleak for him, Hernandez, found a way to become a leader while incarcerated at Rikers Island, mentoring others and completing his studies.
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“These words are outdated and loaded words used to dehumanize the people they describe.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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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