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From ‘alien’ to ‘noncitizen’: Why the Biden word change matters in the immigration debate

Joe Biden puts his arm on the shoulder of a protester who holds a sign: "Not 1 more deportation."
Then-candidate Joe Biden speaks with a town hall attendee, who objects to Obama-Biden immigration policies, at Lander University in Greenwood, S.C., on Nov. 21, 2019.
(Meg Kinnard / Associated Press)

Aída Salazar, a children’s book author in Oakland, had a typical 1970s Los Angeles upbringing. Her parents moved their family from a small city in Zacatecas, Mexico, to the Estrada Courts in Boyle Heights when she was just 9 months old. About five years later, as housing restrictions eased and white flight began, they moved into a house in Maywood.

But like scores of others, much of her family for years lived in the United States without papers. Despite integrating with their community and participating in U.S. society, being without legal status hung over their household like a taboo.

Although they sometimes joked about it, “there was a certain amount of shame associated with it,” said Salazar, who eventually normalized her status. “And because I had a card that said ‘resident alien,’ I was constantly reminded of that fact.”

In legalese, anyone who comes from another country to the United States is an “alien,” a cold piece of statutory language that’s been used since the beginnings of the republic. Immigration advocates have long argued that “alien” dehumanizes migrants. Over the years, they’ve called for an evolving set of terms to refer to people who live in the U.S. without legal status.

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Regarding “alien,” there is a baked-in stigma associated with a word that’s also synonymous with Martians and Mandalorians, advocates say.

On Thursday, the Biden administration released a long-awaited immigration overhaul package that sets a goal of legalizing an estimated 11 million people in the U.S. It’s a promise multiple Democratic administrations have made without success. But deep within the proposal is a directive to replace a single word in the U.S. code: “alien.”

Its replacement would be “noncitizen.” And the proposed switch in the law hasn’t gone unnoticed.

The administration since Day 1 has been adopting the change; on Jan. 20, Biden walked into the Oval Office and signed executive orders aiming to press to the left on immigration, while watched over by a bust of iconic Chicano labor leader Cesar Chavez. He directed everyone working for him to stop using “alien” where applicable until the full law could be changed.

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Thursday’s presentation of the immigration bill, led by Sen. Bob Melendez (D-N.J.) and Rep. Linda T. Sanchez (D-Whittier), followed word earlier this week that the Department of Homeland Security was indeed already directing its division chiefs to drop the term “alien” and start using “noncitizen,” even if Congress hasn’t made the switch in U.S. statutes.

“This change is designed to encourage more inclusive language in the agency’s outreach efforts,” said Joe Sowers, spokesperson for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Supporters applauded the move but not without some mild-mannered quips about the longtime presence of “aliens” in the immigration discourse. Many made jokes on social media about once being from “outer space,” using alien emojis or a GIF from an old Superman movie.

Critics, meanwhile, say dropping “alien” for “noncitizen” in the U.S. is cumbersome and unnecessary, just another example of “woke” culture gone overboard. Robert Law, a longtime former lobbyist for the hardline anti-immigration network FAIR and a former official at the USCIS under Donald Trump, called the move liberal “newspeak.”

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“The use of euphemisms ... is intentionally designed to deceive the public and influence debate on emotion rather than fact,” Law, now with the Center for Immigration Studies, said in an email. “The statutory term ‘alien’ is not offensive, it literally means ‘a person who is not a citizen or national.’ Aliens who have violated the law are here unlawfully, thus an illegal alien.”

Near the likely end of its life in federal statutory language, “alien” today is still used largely on federal forms and in formal legal filings. The infamous “resident alien” cards were changed to “permanent resident” cards in 1998.

Yes, those are all “green cards.” And, yes, the legal term “resident alien” reportedly inspired a 2012 comic book series that became a Syfy television series in 2020. Naturally, it’s about an extraterrestrial.

A far-right favorite

“Alien” is an old word in English. One of the earliest known usages, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is in a text in late Middle English from 1542 that refers to “aliene citees, or foren countries.” Law of FAIR said “illegal alien” was still a “correct term” because, well, the law is the law. Yet the word is most commonly used to shape political opinion.

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During his presidency and his two presidential campaigns, Trump rarely seemed to miss an opportunity to use terms such as “illegals” and “illegal aliens” to help whip up his supporters. The usage has been enthusiastically echoed by the likes of Fox News, Breitbart News and even farther right and conspiracy-minded outlets that directly speak to Trump’s base.

The previous administration swung hard on the issue of language. In an email obtained by CNN in 2018, DHS instructed staff who dealt with the media to describe immigrants captured and accused of crimes as “illegal aliens” whenever possible. And as far back as 2005, an infamous memo by California pollster Frank Luntz urged Republicans to always lean on the distinction between “legal” and “illegal” on immigration debates.

Beatriz Valenzuela, communications manager for gay-rights group Equality California and a former newspaper reporter, said she remembered well the taunts and jeers she’d get for being “illegal.” It made no sense to her. Her family was from Tijuana, and while growing up in El Monte, she said she had no idea she did not have legal status.

“Even with El Monte, we would hear a lot of [racial slurs] and, yeah, alien,” Valenzuela said. “And growing up in the ’80s, of course, we were called ‘E.T.’ and this and that, amongst ourselves, depending on who you got in a fight with.”

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She added: “‘Alien’ sounds like something literally from another galaxy, and this is our neighbor who lives in our apartment building. So it never fit, we didn’t get it.”

When “illegal alien” and “illegal immigrant” began to disappear from mainstream news articles, replaced by more specific or thoughtful terms, it conjured memories for Valenzuela of her journey to becoming a citizen at age 19.

“Even the derogatory terms, they were a little more welcome. At least it applied to a person and not a little green man or a UFO. Having grown up with this entire process, it was really nice to see how the terms evolved,” she went on. “We went from being called straight-up illegal aliens — we talk about ‘the other,’ that hyper-'others’ people — to then being called undocumented. Even ‘illegal immigrant,’ there was at least that human component involved with ‘immigrant.’”

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced it would use inclusive language, including dropping the use of “illegal alien,” a term with a fraught history in California.

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There is evidence of direct links between words and actions on the matter.

A 2019 USA Today study, after the anti-immigrant massacre in El Paso, found that in “64 rallies Trump has held since 2017 ... when discussing immigration, the president has said ‘invasion’ at least 19 times. He has used the word ‘animal’ 34 times and the word ‘killer’ nearly three dozen times.” A separate analysis by the New York Times found parallels between right-wing news outlets like Fox News and their language usage and the horrid manifesto left by the shooter in El Paso.

Activist networks for years have diligently pushed news and political organizations to change their language on immigrants. The Associated Press, the standard of style in the news industry, and the Los Angeles Times now both advise against use of the terms “illegal immigrant” and “undocumented immigrant” in their articles.

“We know that increasingly dehumanizing language always precedes violence,” said Monica Novoa, an L.A.-native organizer based in New York who coordinated the campaign called Drop the I-Word starting in 2010. “Undocumented people at the time were rejecting this language, and I really feel that this is their victory.”

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Scratching “alien” from the law of the land won’t be easy, though. People working their way through the pricey and backlogged slog of the naturalization system, for example, are all assigned an “A number,” that is, an “Alien Identification Number.”

Plus, a patchwork of agencies are charged with receiving, processing, legalizing and/or deporting people who come to this country from beyond its borders. All would have to adhere to the change if approved by Congress. It would take considerable resources for all the agencies to cull their websites, forms, internal data and language on everything that happens inside, said observers including Law.

For that reason, as the The Times has reported, the full changes could hardly happen overnight.

A portrait of Aída Salazar.
Aída Salazar moved to L.A. from Mexico as an infant. She writes children’s books with themes of migration and freedom.
(The San Diego Union-Tribune en Español)
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Now a citizen, Salazar writes stories for children around themes of migration and freedom. In her 2020 book “Land of the Cranes,” a young girl’s father is captured by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and deported. Her writing draws partly from her own experiences, the author said, which mirror those of so many others — a quilt of trans-border movements, exchanges and tragedies that echoes in so many family trees of people in California.

“I don’t have to look very far to know somebody in my family who has been deported, who has been detained, who crossed and got lost, and were never heard from again,” Salazar said. “These are stories in my immediate family.”

The change on “alien” is welcome, Salazar said.

“We have to do everything we can to minimize the destructive nature of language in the politics that’s been used against immigrants to criminalize them,” the author said. “Given what we have right now, I think it’s an excellent way to change the narrative, the narrative that has demonized immigrants for so long.”


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