Lawmakers in at least seven states reportedly considered eliminating the use of terms such as ‘alien’ and ‘illegal’ to describe migrants, and replacing them with descriptions such as ‘undocumented’ and ‘noncitizen’, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. However, only two states reportedly followed through on making the change.
A new report revealed that only California and Colorado dropped the use of dehumanizing terms to describe migrants. According to immigrants and immigrant-rights’ groups, the term ‘alien’ is particularly dehumanizing, especially when combined with the word illegal. Immigrant advocates say that the term can have a harmful effect on US immigration policy.
The term alien became a focal point of the US immigration debate amid a surge in the number of Central American migrants arriving at the US-Mexico border. Earlier this year, US President Joe Biden ordered US immigration agencies to scrap the use of terms such as ‘alien’ and ‘illegal’.
California and Colorado embrace changes
Democratic lawmaker for California, Luz Rivas, described how she remembered seeing the word ‘alien’ on her mother’s residency card as a child. She has lobbied for the term to be scrapped for many years, saying: “I want other children of immigrants, like me, not to feel the same way I did, that my family did, when we saw the word ‘alien’.”
“I want all Californians that are contributing to our society, that are small business owners, that work hard, to feel that they are part of California communities,” she added.
Meanwhile, during a legislative committee hearing, the state senator for Colorado, Julie Gonzales – who co-sponsored the new law in Colorado – said: “Words such as ‘illegal’ are ‘dehumanizing and derogatory’ when applied to immigrants.”
Gonzales said that the new legislation in Colorado aimed to remove the only place in Colorado statute where ‘illegal alien’ was used to describe people living in the US illegally.
“That language has been offensive for many people, and some of the rationale behind that is really rooted in this idea that a person can certainly commit an illegal act, but no human being themselves is illegal,” Gonzales said.
First naturalization law
Using the term ‘alien’ to describe people who are not US citizens dates back hundreds of years in American history, way back to the nation’s first naturalization law passed when George Washington was President.
Amid fears of a war with France, Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, which sought to suppress political subversion.
However, changing the long-standing government terminology around US immigration is not universally accepted as necessary or desirable.
Spokesperson for the Colorado Senate Republicans, Sage Naumann, said: “The Democratic-controlled Legislature should be spending its time on matters of deeper importance to residents, such as taking steps to fight inflation, tackle crime and improve education.”
“The average Coloradan – or American – won’t care about what semi-controversial words are buried in their state statutes.”
Biden administration pushback
Back in April, the Biden administration received pushback after ordering US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to avoid using the word ‘alien’ in internal documents and public communications and instead use ‘noncitizen’ or ‘migrant’. ‘Illegal alien’ was also scrapped and replaced by descriptions such as ‘undocumented noncitizen’.
Acting commissioner, Troy Miller, said: “We enforce our nation’s laws while also maintaining the dignity of every individual with whom we interact. The words we use matter and will serve to further confer that dignity to those in our custody.”
However, Border Patrol Chief Rodney Scott objected to the language being removed, writing to others in the CBP to say that the new language ‘contradicted’ the language used in criminal statutes, which plunged the agency into partisan debate.
In an interview, Scott said: “To change the law is fine, but until then you’re really politicizing the mission.”
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