States are trying to get rid of the term 'illegal alien.' Here's why that's important.


Experts say words matter in the push for humane treatment of immigrants.

States are pushing hard to remove or replace the terms "illegal alien" and "alien" from official documents when referring to noncitizens — a fight that experts say has a monumental impact on creating a more inclusive society, at a time when immigration has become the topic du jour among GOP lawmakers.

California Democrats in February introduced a bill to eliminate "alien" from state laws and codes. On April 6, the legislation moved out of committee and is now headed for a state Assembly floor vote.

"The term dehumanizes men, women and children, and it has often been weaponized against immigrants of color, such as the racist laws intended to block Chinese immigration in the late 19th century," said Democratic Assemblymember Evan Low on Feb. 18. "Immigration is the backbone of the American identity, and the process of naturalization should be one we embrace rather than pitting citizens against noncitizens."

On March 30, the Colorado state legislature similarly passed a bill to replace "illegal alien" with "worker without authorization" in the state's public contracts. The legislation is now on Democratic Gov. Jared Polis' desk awaiting approval.

"Hate speech and xenophobic rhetoric has risen across our nation in recent years and it’s up to us to pass policies that affirm the humanity of marginalized communities," Democratic state Sen. Julie Gonzales said in March. "Changing the language we use to refer to immigrants in our statute books is a small but important step forward in disarming hate."

At the federal level, President Joe Biden has also moved to make immigration language less dehumanizing.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service plans to remove the term "aliens" in its policy manual, BuzzFeedNews reported late March. It's a stark reversal from the Trump administration, which actively inserted the term in references to "foreign nationals."

In February, the Biden administration directed USCIS officials to stop using "alien" and "illegal alien" in the agency's communications as well.

And a Jan. 20 White House fact sheet on the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, which would create a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants, noted the word "alien" would be replaced with "noncitizen" in the nation's immigration laws.

Experts say the changes are small but important.

Anti-bias consultant Suzanne Wertheim called the process long overdue, noting that dehumanization and skewed framing are two major problems that come with usage of such language.

"One important component of word choice that people often overlook is what we call 'framing.' What is the frame, or scenario, evoked by the word?" Wertheim said. "The framing on language of immigration has been pretty distorted, and distorted in ways that specifically bias people against immigrants."

She added, "Calling a person an 'illegal alien' or just 'an illegal' is dehumanizing and 'othering'. It frames this person as someone less than human. Dehumanization is a common precursor to violence and other forms of abuse."

Ernesto Castaneda, founding director of the Immigration Lab at American University, said in an email that calling Latin immigrants "invaders, bad hombres, gang members," as Donald Trump routinely did throughout his presidency, encourages violence. He cited as an example the 2019 mass shooting in El Paso, in which the suspected gunman, a 21-year-old white man, had posted a manifesto online complaining about an "invasion" of immigrants, before opening fire at a Walmart, killing 23 people.

Similarly, Castaneda said, calling COVID-19 the "China virus" has fueled a spate of anti-Asian hate crimes.

"The term ['alien'] linguistically equates the foreign-born to an alien species coming from another planet. This term is ethnocentric as it centers Whiteness [when] equating the U.S.A.," he said.

"...You can't say that words don't matter," Leo R. Chavez, distinguished professor and chair at the University of California, Irvine's anthropology department, said separately in a phone interview.

Painting noncitizens with the term "alien" also forms strong biases in peoples minds. "[It's like] they're from outer space," Chavez said, referring to how the term persuades many people to think.

Michele McKenzie, deputy director of the nonprofit Advocates for Human Rights, said in an email, "No word so clearly labels a person as 'other' or fails to recognize humanity in an individual than 'alien.' The term long has been coupled with terms like 'enemy,' 'sedition,' and, more recently, 'illegal.'"

Throughout history, the term "alien" has become embedded in U.S. laws, excluding people deemed "foreign" from full participation in American society.

The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 increased the naturalization period from five to 14 years, restricted activities and freedom of speech for so-called "aliens," and established deportation procedures.

Alien Land Laws in California (1913 and 1920) and Washington (1889) systematically barred "aliens" of Asian descent from owning land in the United States.

And the Immigration Act of 1924 established a quota and limited how many immigrants could enter the country. That law resulted in a division between immigrants considered "legal" — those allowed in legally under the new policies — and those who were not. The term "alien" began to be used to refer to the latter group, Chavez noted.

"That kind of legislation, when you use the word 'alien' really reinforces the fact that these are people who really don't deserve to be Americans and don't deserve to be here," he added.

There are better options when it comes to describing undocumented people, the experts said.

"Noncitizens is a better descriptor that reminds us that they are part of our economy and social circle, but they lack political rights, like the right to vote," Castaneda said. "The Biden administration and the bills proposed are moving in the right direction."

Wertheim welcomed moves away from biased and dehumanizing framing to more neutral and accurate language that don'e demean whole groups of people or marginalize them further.

"Words matter," McKenzie added. "Statutory definitions articulate and shape public policy."

As Kevin Johnson, an immigration and civil rights law scholar, wrote for the Conversation, "The one-word change [away from 'alien'] could deeply influence Americans; views about the rights of noncitizens and, by so doing, the future trajectory of immigration law and policy."

"Terminology matters. Humans, not faceless invaders, are affected by the immigration laws," McKenzie added.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.