Update: November 3, 9:49 am

The following is a slightly expanded version of my original post which appeared on November 1.

Recently, I received an article that a distinguished colleague was kind enough to forward to me called: Why Congress Should Eliminate the Term "Alien" from Federal Law by Guillermo Cantor, on the site immigrationimpact.com (October 27)


Ever since I began practicing immigration law some three decades ago, I have been curious as to why our immigration laws refer to people whom our legal system welcomes to the US in large numbers every year (yes, Virginia, there are legal "aliens" - millions of them - in America), by a term that has obvious negative connotations.

As Cantor points out in his article:

"Etymologically, the word 'alien' derives from the Latin word 'alienus' which means 'belonging to another.' And while in modern English, the term is defines as 'relating, belonging or owing allegiance to another country or government', it is also used to describe 'a creature that comes from somewhere other than the planet earth'. One thing is certain: the term emphasizes the difference, the "otherness", the lack of belonging of the person referred to."

To be sure, in ancient Roman law, the term "alienus" often had a neutral, non-pejorative connotation, meaning only someone other than the person in question. According to the Elementary Latin Dictionary (which is in fact far from elementary) by C. T. Lewis (based on the original unabridged edition, 1889), aes alienum, for example, means "money belonging to another", i.e. a debt.

Adolf Berger's Encyclopedic Dictionary of Roman Law (1952) gives the examples of "alieno nomine" ("in the name of another") and "alieni juris esse" ("to be legally dependent on the power of another"). Nothing pejorative here.

But, for the ancient Romans, there was also another, more negative aspect to this word. C.T. Lewis' dictionary also gives the following meanings for "alienus" :

"foreign, alien, strange,"

and even more pejoratively:

false, unsuitable, incongruous, inadequate, inconsistent, unreasonable

and, most negative of all:

hostile, unfriendly,

and, finally, with reference to the mind:

estranged or disordered, (a meaning of "alien" that also still in use today).

Does it really make sense to use a term with such a long history of negative connotations in order to refer to millions of foreign citizens who are legally welcome in America, or even those who for technical reasons in our complex and convoluted immigration system, might not be eligible for visas for one reason or another?

Cantor writes:

"However, a distinction that is based on exclusionary and inflammatory language is not only dehumanizing, it is also inaccurate...These foreign born residents are in no way outsiders. The fact that someone was born in another country does not mean that she is not or will not be a full members of our society. In other words, one can be a noncitizen and still have deep roots and strong ties to the United States."

The term "alien" also has its origin in laws of which America has no reason to be proud, including the notorious 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts.

In more recent times, while this term does not appear in the infamous Chinese exclusion laws beginning in 1882, it does appear in the notorious national origins quotas Immigration Act of 1924 and its WW1 era predecessors which were intended to keep out racially "undesirable" immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

But the main argument against continuing to use the word "alien" is that it has been hijacked by anti-immigrant demagogues in our own time to stir up hostility against all immigrants, regardless of whether or not they are in this country legally. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that many Americans think that "alien" is only a half-word; namely the second part of a full word beginning with "illegal".

Cantor concludes:

"Why, then, do our federal laws contain language that reinforces the erroneous notion that foreign-born residents of the United States are outsiders, that they don't belong here, and that they are "the other"? There is no reason to keep a language that is archaic, that informs prejudice, and that has a negative impact in people's lives. Words are not just symbols. Words matter."

We should replace the hostile and degrading term "alien" with a neutral one such as "non-US citizen", which recognizes that immigrants, regardless of their legal status or lack of it, are human beings just as much as American citizens.

In doing so, we can also look to the example of ancient Rome. Virgil, in his great epic poem Aeneid, puts the following immortal lines into the mouth of Dido, the legendary queen of Carthage:

Tros Tyriusque mihi nullo discrimine agetur ("I make no distinction between a Trojan [immigrant] and a Tyrian [citizen].")

Even just taking the word "alien" in its original, literal, meaning of "other" it is time for America to stop regarding immigrants as being somehow "other" than ourselves.

While. of course, the US needs to enact and enforce our immigration laws for social, economic and security reasons, we will have better laws if their terminology is free from prejudicial and dehumanizing terms.

It is time to deport the word "alien" from our immigration laws.
Roger Algase is a New York immigration lawyer and a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School. For more than 30 years, he has been helping mainly skilled and professional immigrants obtain H-1B, O-1 and other work visas, J-1 training visas, and green cards through labor certification, extraordinary ability and marriage. His email address is algaselex@gmail.com