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  • Article: Why Congress Should Eliminate the Term “Alien” from Federal Law. By Guillermo Cantor

    Why Congress Should Eliminate the Term “Alien” from Federal Law



    Last week, Congressman Joaquin Castro (TX-20) introduced legislation to remove derogatory language describing noncitizens as “aliens” from federal law. The bill, known as the Correcting Hurtful and Alienating Names in Government Expression (CHANGE) Act, eliminates the use of this terminology in U.S. code and federal agencies’ materials and documentation.

    If enacted, the CHANGE Act would (a) change the term “alien” in federal law to the term “foreign national;” (b) strike the term “illegal alien” from federal law and replace it with the term “undocumented foreign national;” and (c) ensure all Executive Branch agencies do not use the terms “alien” and “illegal alien” in signage and literature.

    Current law utilizes the term “alien” to depict a person who is not a citizen or national of the United States. This language has been used in U.S. code since the Naturalization Act of 1790, which represented the country’s initial effort to establish the rules under which a foreign-born person could become a U.S. citizen. The term, however, has a markedly pejorative meaning.

    Etymologically, the word “alien” derives from the latin word “alienus” which means “belonging to another.” And while in modern English the term is defined 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” and the lack of belonging of the person referred to.

    The reality is that this term and its connotations are at odds with a country that prides itself of being a country of immigrants. According to sociologist John Torpey, “because nation-states are both territorial and membership organizations, they must erect and sustain boundaries between nationals and non-nationals both at their physical borders and among people within those borders.” However, a distinction that is based on exclusionary and inflammatory language is not only dehumanizing, it is also inaccurate. First, a significant share of our foreign-born population has lived in the country for a lengthy period of time. They are integral members of the U.S. society and the communities in which they live. 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 never be a full member of our society. In other words, one can be a noncitizen and still have deep roots and strong ties to the United States.

    According to estimates by the Department of Homeland Security, over 13 million individuals are lawful permanent residents. Of that number, more than 50% have become lawful permanent residents before 2005. As for undocumented immigrants, three-fifths of the estimated 11.4 million individuals living in the country have been in the United States for more than a decade. Many noncitizens also have strong connections to the United States, such as U.S.-citizen family members (especially U.S.-born children), jobs, and homes in the country. Additionally, the newest generations of immigrants are integrating into the U.S. society as fast and extensively as the previous ones and over time, foreign-born individuals come to resemble their native-born counterparts across all measurable outcomes.

    Why, then, do our federal laws contain language that reinforces and perpetuates 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.

    Photo by Commander, U.S. 7th Fleet

    This post originally appeared on Immigration Impact. Reprinted with permission.

    About The Author

    Guillermo Cantor, Ph.D., is the Senior Policy Analyst at the American Immigration Council, where he also leads the Council’s research efforts. He has authored numerous publications on immigration policy and immigrant integration and regularly appears in English- and Spanish-language media. He also currently teaches sociology of immigration at Georgetown University. Mr. Cantor holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Maryland, College Park.

    The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.

    Comments 5 Comments
    1. ILWlurker's Avatar
      ILWlurker -
      This is just silly. Using "alien" for someone who is not a national is the core meaning. That it has also been used, in fiction, for "creatures from another planet" for the existence of which there is not a shred of evidence is simply a literary extension beyond the core meaning. I can see replacing "illegal alien" with "alien present in the United States in violation of law."

      In the US I am a national. I was recently in Canada. The fact that I was in Canada lawfully doesn't change the fact that, in Canada, I am an alien. All it means is "not part of the polity."
    1. Retired INS's Avatar
      Retired INS -
      I spent 30 years with the INS and 9 years with USCIS. I have no problem substituting "foreign national" for the term "alien." However, the term "Undocumented Foreign Nation" is a poor substitute for illegal alien. To start with, the term "alien" was a definition I had to learn going through the Border Patrol Academy in 1972. The term "illegal alien" was not an official definition used in immigration laws at that time. Maybe it has been added, but I'm not sure where the term illegal alien is used in law. Its primary use is by immigration officers, politicians, and the general public. Nothing mentioned about would preclude people from using the term "illegal alien" in general conversation. The term "undocumented alien" was first used by INS Commissioner Castillo in 1978 when he banned the use of the words "wet" and "wetback" from immigration vocabulary. The entire INS rebelled against him because many illegal aliens are very well documented with passports and expired visas. Good luck getting Homeland Security officers to stop using the term "illegal alien."
    1. Nolan Rappaport's Avatar
      Nolan Rappaport -
      Why advocate for the removal of the term "alien" from the INA, Guillermo? Do you see this as a real possibility? Aren't there other issues you can address that are at least theoretical possibilities? And what would you accomplish if by some miracle the law were to be changed? Would that facilitate an agreement between the democrats and the republicans on comprehensive immigration reform? I don't think so.
    1. Retired INS's Avatar
      Retired INS -
      Quote Originally Posted by Nolan Rappaport View Post
      Why advocate for the removal of the term "alien" from the INA, Guillermo? Do you see this as a real possibility? Aren't there other issues you can address that are at least theoretical possibilities? And what would you accomplish if by some miracle the law were to be changed? Would that facilitate an agreement between the democrats and the republicans on comprehensive immigration reform? I don't think so.
      In 1978 & 79 I wrote Private Bill reports to Congress for the INS. Before ABSCAM (1980), any private bill submitted by a Senator stayed the deportation of the beneficiary of the bill until the two year session of Congress ended. I remember contacting the offices of a few Senators to let them know there was substantial derogatory information in the beneficiary's file. I was told: "Don't worry, your report will never be seen because this bill is not intended to be voted on." They openly admitted the bill was for political purposes only (meaning they received money for submitting the bill - that is what ABACAM ended). I believe this bill has a similar political purpose. It is for show, and is not intended to be seriously considered.
    1. newacct's Avatar
      newacct -
      I feel like a lot of this issue is borne out of ignorance. People are like, why are we using a word ("alien") for space creatures to describe foreigners? But we are not -- it's the other way around -- science fiction writers borrowed an existing word ("alien") that already meant foreigners, and used it as an analogy for these new space creatures they are imagining, "extraterrestial aliens", who are like foreigners but from out of the Earth instead of from out of the country. I don't think we should be changing our laws just to accommodate ignorance.
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