A recent poll says 1 of 3 non-Latinos think the majority of Latinos are undocumented

We've written often about our sense that "Latino" and "illegal" have become conflated in people's minds, and how that error in perception has adversely affected the way Latinos are viewed and treated, regardless of documentation status.

Now, there's a poll that confirms just how widespread that erroneous perception is. The National Hispanic Media Coalition and Latino Decisions poll, cited in a recent article by NBClatino, indicates that 1 in 3 non-Latino Americans believe the majority of Latinos are undocumented. That's a shockingly high number and one that signals that we've entered the dangerous stage where misinformation and misapprehension turn into discrimination.

If the 1-in-3 number is accurate, the recent ruling upholding the "show me your papers" section of Arizona's SB 1070 becomes a guarantee of racial profiling. If the 1-in-3 number is accurate, the Alabama, Georgia and North Carolina anti-immigrant laws become, de facto, anti-Latino laws already on the books. If the 1-in-3 number is accurate, the bills proposed by Pa. state representative Daryl Metcalfe —the so-called National Security Begins at Home laws— are in reality a proposal to institute "National Prejudice Begins at Home" laws in a commonwealth founded on the ideal of tolerance.

If the 1-in-3 number is accurate, we've got a bigger problem on our hands than we dared to believe.

The poll gives us more. 1 of 2 non-Latinos believes:

• Latinos are ... welfare recipients (51 percent)

• Latinos are ... less educated (50 percent)

Of course, we know that nobody thinks those things of JLo or Mario López, but fame is by definition about the exception, not the rule. Take a look around you. According to the poll, 44 percent of those who see you reading this newspaper in Spanish — or reading this on a predominantly Spanish-language web site — believe we (you!) refuse to learn English. 

So if "Latino" is a synonym for "illegal" in one out of three minds, what do we do?

There are those native-born Latinos who see this as yet another reason to send all the undocumented back to wherever it is they came from, and the faster the better. That "solution" — in addition to being, in our opinion, outright wrongheaded and privileged — won't work. Because as the poll shows, even if every undocumented person self- or was deported, one third of the non-Latinos would still look at the rest of us and believe the deportation effort hadn't been systematic enough. 

No, what we need to do to is systematically ensure that the vilification of the undocumented (and, by association, of us) ceases and desists at every level of our nation's life. 

It starts with refusing to use the word "Illegal" to describe people. Yes, native-born Latinos do use the word — we've seen it in the comments we get on our web site and have heard it coming from the mouths of Latinos standing behind political podiums on the national stage. If we can't do this out of a sense of shared humanity, let's do it out of self-interest, because we know — we know — that every time we use that word to describe an undocumented person we are cementing the fact that 1 in 3 people use (or think) that word in describing us and our loved ones.

What else? We refuse — no matter how frustrated or aggravated we are by the nation's broken immigration system — to support bills and proposed laws that demonize and make life untenable for undocumented people. Again, enlightened self-interest. We know 1 out of 3 times it'll be us asked to present our papers; us whose immigration status will be checked if we linger a bit too long in the Home Depot parking lot; us who will elicit suspicion when we want to rent a home that accommodates us, our kids and our parents.

It is conceivable it'll be a generation or two before "Latino" and "illegal" stop being synonyms in one out of three people's minds. But we can — must— work together to ensure that no word becomes an excuse for prejudice or laws that institutionalize racial and ethnic profiling.

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