Many of you have astutely noticed that I use the term US citizen when writing about citizens of the United States instead of the more commonly used word; American. Initially I didn’t really give much thought to the word American when describing a US citizen because my intent was to assimilate my English into the American version. Having grown up in Mexico I was aware of the argument that using American to refer to US citizens or US things misappropriated a word that defined a continent for the exclusive use of identifying US citizens. Although aware of it, I didn’t really pay much attention to it initially. That is until I started to understand that the discussion about other countries in United States was usually distorted by misconceptions perpetuated within the US.
This was more pronounced when it came time to discuss Mexico and Mexican affairs. What I realized is that most discussions about immigration and Mexico centered on all-encompassing misuse of language that led to misconceptions about the issue. I noticed that many, if not all, US citizens used the term Mexican to refer to people that were either of Mexican descent or citizens of Mexico. This became a problem when discussing the issue of immigrants misusing social service programs.
Any discussion involving using housing vouchers or school meals was normally proceeded with Mexicans using the services. What was not clear was that the word Mexicans was an all-encompassing label that included Mexican citizens recently migrated to the United States and long-term citizens of the United States that are of Mexican descent. This distinction is important to any discussion about immigration reform because use of social services by immigrants is restricted under the current immigration and national laws.
When I pressed the issue of whether the individual using the social service was a citizen of Mexico, or a citizen of the United States it became apparent that to most individuals the thought hadn’t crossed their minds, instead the all-encompassing Mexicans was used to define both citizens and non-citizens alike.
In a recent blog post, I wrote about my personal experiences with immigration. One of the commenters posted that the El Paso Housing Authority (HACEP) was being abused by foreigners from Mexico. This is a notion that has existed for decades. However, if you step back and take a look at the issue you would see that the governmental guidelines that HACEP uses for housing require that the individual applying for the service is required to be a US citizen, or a legal resident of the US. This is true for most, if not all, housing assistance programs in the nation.
Undocumented immigrants cannot provide the appropriate paperwork to use the housing assistance program.
However, when individuals use the term Mexicans it groups citizens, legal residents and undocumented together creating the notion that housing assistance programs are being abused by undocumented immigrants. Instead when the terminology is appropriately applied, as in a US citizen, it readily becomes apparent that the problem is something else altogether.
It is important to make a distinction between a US citizen, a legal resident and an undocumented immigrant while debating immigration reform. If the debate centers on social welfare programs then the question that needs to be addressed is whether undocumented immigrants are misusing the system or not. Any legal resident or US citizen, regardless of whether they originated from Mexico or not cannot be accused of misusing a social welfare program because the US government has deemed them appropriate for using the program. If the argument shifts towards the cost to the taxpayer, it then becomes an issue of governance by US citizens over themselves instead of an issue of immigrants misusing a social welfare program because the fact is that the governing body has agreed to the requirements of the program.
Yes, I am aware that the use of American has entered the US vernacular however; this is not true for Latin America as many subscribe to the notion that all of us in the New World are American. In addition, using the word American misapplies the definition towards a larger group that makes debating the nuances of immigration reform more difficult.
If we are to have an honest and meaningful discussion about immigration reform then the arguments on both sides needs to come from a common ground that is understood by all. Mexicans denotes a cultural heritage that can encompass many citizenships include US citizens. A Mexican citizen is just that, a Mexican citizen. Likewise, a US citizen is entirely different from an American, regardless of the common vernacular. I’m sure an ICE agent will not take too kindly to me giving them my Mexican passport and declaring myself American.
This is why I try not to use the word American to define a US citizen.