Library of Congress to stop using term ‘illegal alien’

An anti-immigration group rallies in Irvine in 2013. Many such groups prefer to use the term “illegal alien.”

An anti-immigration group rallies in Irvine in 2013. Many such groups prefer to use the term “illegal alien.”

(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

The Library of Congress, saying a once common phrase had become offensive, announced it will no longer use “illegal aliens” as a bibliographical term.

The library will now use “noncitizens” and “unauthorized immigration” when referring to individuals and the larger phenomenon of people residing in the country illegally. The library called the words more precise as well as less offensive.

The change was prompted by a group of students from Dartmouth College, who urged the Library of Congress to scrap the term. The group — known as CoFIRED, for the Dartmouth Coalition for Immigration Reform, Equality and Dreamers — was assisted by the American Library Assn.


Melissa Padilla, a student in her last year at the New Hampshire university, recalls her freshman year, when she “decided to explore [her] identity as an undocumented immigrant.”

While researching the topic, Padilla realized she frequently read the words “illegal alien.” She contacted fellow members of CoFIRED, and they made their appeal to the Library of Congress in 2014. “I think a university should be free of the racist phrases I heard growing up,” she said.

The Library of Congress established the catalog subject heading “aliens, illegal” in 1980 and revised it to “illegal aliens” in 1993.

Though the latter has been heard frequently during the current presidential campaign — along with “illegals” — it has fallen out of favor in the news media and elsewhere, and the Library of Congress noted the trend in an executive summary released on March 22.

“The phase illegal aliens has taken on a pejorative tone in recent years, and in response, some institutions have determined that they will cease to use it,” the executive summary said. “For example, in April 2014 the Associated Press announced that illegal would not be used as a descriptor for any individual.”

A number of news organizations made the change as well, including The Times, which no longer uses “illegal” to describe people but does use the term “illegal immigration.”


It’s giving in to political correctness. ‘Illegal alien’ is a proper legal term.

— Ira Mehlman, media director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform

Dennis Hernandez, co-director of CoFIRED, called the library’s action an example for others to follow.

“We are calling on politicians and the news media to continue the precedent set by the Library of Congress,” Hernandez said. “Now is the time for all to recognize that referring to undocumented immigrants as ‘illegals’ is offensive.” The word is dehumanizing, Hernandez said, and there is no excuse to keep using it.

The Dartmouth students had recommended “undocumented immigrants,” but the library had issues with that too, calling it imprecise. “Not all ‘undocumented’ people are, or intend to be, immigrants, and many of them do in fact have documents of some type,” the executive summary said.

Ira Mehlman, media director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates stricter enforcement of immigration laws, called the change unnecessary.

“It’s giving in to political correctness,” he said. “‘Illegal alien’ is a proper legal term.”

Mehlman also noted the exceptional role of the Library of Congress — its subject headings are used by libraries nationwide and internationally. The library “is an important institution, and they ought to have some kind of allegiance to accuracy in language and precision,” he said.

Entering the country without authorization is by definition illegal, Mehlman noted, and “alien” appears in the immigration code.

An effort to change that was launched last October by Texas congressman Joaquin Castro, a Democrat from San Antonio, who introduced a bill that would remove “alien” and “illegal alien” from federal laws. The bill has not advanced in the Republican-dominated House.

Rivera is a staff writer with Hoy Los Angeles and Padilla a staff writer with the Los Angeles Times.


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