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Don’t say illegal, when you say migrant

In Mexico to interview police agents and politicians about migrants, Raul is acutely aware of the power of words

When I talked to him a month ago, PhD student Raul Marroquin was about to take a plane to Mexico and meet up with police agents, politicians and scholars.

He was going to ask questions about the flow of people crossing the country without valid documents.

Migrants enter Mexico across its south-eastern border from Guatemala and other Central American states, hoping ultimately to reach the US.

Law is discourse

Questioning him, I made the mistake of using the term ‘illegal immigrants’ for these people. But my slip of the tongue inadvertently reached the heart of his project.

»I use the term undocumented migrants, because saying illegal is already stigmatising them,« he told me.

So he is studying ‘undocumented migrants’ and their rights in Mexico. But crucially, he is studying what is said about the undocumented migrants in writing and speech.

»I work with discourse analysis, and I consider the law as just one form of discourse, a strong discourse,« he said.

Police talk

The discourse on migrants cannot be separated from the treatment of real migrants in the real world.

In Mexico, as in many other places, the law speaks of migrants by referring to another discourse, the discourse of security.

Police, politicians, administrators understand migrants in terms of security. Security for who, though? Security of the state? Raul is questioning these presuppositions.

»What is the version of migrants and security that for example the police has? How are they using these terms in their everyday life, and where do they receive their information?,« Raul asks.

National security, but for who?

Security is by no means a neutral term.

»Security, yes but what do you mean by this? It is important to distinguish between the security of the state, and the security of the nation or the citizens. Often the term national security will be evoked, but it is just as often used to defend an elite of politicians,« he said.

After meeting his Danish wife in 2000, Raul first came to Denmark working for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Back in Mexico City in 2005, he ‘turned state’, working for the state prosecutors office.

Awarded two grants

Now in Denmark, and with a wife and two children, he was simultaneously awarded two PhD grants, one in the University of Copenhagen in the Humanities and one in Copenhagen Business School in political science and in law.

Of course he only needed one, but he »would have liked to have accepted both of them…« Raul joked.

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