Our words matter. This adage has never been truer to me as I increasingly hear contentious rhetoric about immigration buzzing around the dinner table and in the media during this election year. Using natural disaster or criminal language terms such as “surge,” “influx,” or “illegals” to describe increases in immigration tends to stir fear and replace truth with political diatribes.

Still, why should we care about how we or others describe the growth in immigration to the United States?

First, the consequences of using fear-mongering language to describe immigrants are dire. Such language can cause a xenophobic snowball effect of seeing immigrants as “illegal” or “criminal” and making them shooting targets.

But those who come to the U.S. and fear persecution if they are deported have a legal right to seek asylum under U.S. and international law. I have previously written about how this kind of anti-immigrant rhetoric is harmful to our country and is unfortunately driven by ignorance in some of the media.

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Second, according to a new brief by the Maryland Office of the Comptroller, immigrants are bringing in tax dollars that help pay for our schools and our roads. They fix our bridges, provide health care and contribute to STEM research. Immigrants take on some of the most challenging and dangerous jobs in Maryland’s economy so that everyone in Maryland can thrive.

The increase in immigrants settling in Maryland can help offset the population decline in this state. Describing immigrants as “illegals” receiving “handouts” belies the reality of their contributions to our communities and our daily lives. Understanding this reality will help us remove legal and procedural barriers immigrants face and ensure access to work authorization, access to mental health care, financial assistance for job application fees, and citizenship rules for certain state jobs.

Third, as a Baltimorean, an immigrant and a survivor, I have firsthand knowledge of some of the reasons why immigrants are coming to the U.S. and, especially, Maryland. In my 12-plus years of working with immigrants, I have met farmworkers who harvested apples and asparagus that helped feed your family; women who now work here as housekeepers or doctors after fleeing forced marriage and threats of violence or death; queer activists fleeing persecution who are now advocating for others; and children rescued from labor and commercial sexual trafficking who now try to go to school every day.

Anti-immigrant rhetoric not only obscures the reality of why these communities migrate. It also creates obstacles for those communities to integrate. In my work at the Tahirih Justice Center, we defend immigrant survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and trafficking against unjust deportation so they may find safety and independence. But the barriers our clients and other immigrants face to escape domestic violence or to access mental health care, housing and food frequently prevent them from being full participants in their communities.

In this time where so many Black and brown immigrants who look like me and my family are demonized, antagonized and ostracized, I am grateful to live in Baltimore, where I have always felt at home.

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Baltimore has walked the walk of a welcoming city for immigrants — ranging from the Mayor’s Office for Immigrant Affairs recently becoming a permanent government institution to the outpouring of support for the families of the Lombard Street house fire and the workers who died in the tragic collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge.

But let’s not become complacent. In this election year, when immigration is high on the list of voters’ concerns, our dinner table conversations and discussions in classrooms are that much more life-changing. Let’s keep being an example to others by caring about how we talk about our immigrant neighbors.

Daniella Prieshoff, a Baltimore resident, is the managing attorney of the Tahirih Justice Center, a national nonprofit organization supporting immigrant survivors of gender-based violence in Baltimore.

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