NBC News reports that included in President Joe Biden’s proposed immigration overhaul would be a provision striking the dehumanizing term “alien” found in our nation’s immigration law, and replacing it with the term “noncitizen.” This may seem like a small edit to some, perhaps more of a search-and-replace, but words matter. Especially after the previous four years.
“The term 'alien' is used as a dehumanizing slur, and should be removed from the language in our statutes,” Texas congressman and Congressional Hispanic Caucus member Joaquin Castro told NBC News. “This change might seem symbolic, but it’s an important step to restore humanity after years of demonization.”
Words matter, and in this case the word has made immigrant families feel like they’re not even human. When I initially shared NBC News’ report on Twitter, one immigrant relayed to me her own experience being called an “alien” by her own government. “It’s so dehumanizing,” tweeted author Aida Salazar. “After being undocumented my entire childhood, I finally received my card at 13 yo but it read ‘Resident Alien’. It sent a clear message—you will always be less.”
Words matter, and the previous administration knew it too. While there have been strong pushes by immigrant rights advocates to have media organizations of all sizes stop using slurs like “illegal immigrant,” the previous administration and its officials sought to double down on the use of these offensive terms. The Justice Department under former U.S. Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, a main player in the state-sanctioned kidnapping of thousands of children at the southern border, in fact ordered it.
“The Justice Department has instructed US attorneys offices not to use the term ‘undocumented’ immigrants and instead refer to someone illegally in the US as ‘an illegal alien,’ according to a copy of an agency-wide email obtained by CNN,” the outlet reported in July 2018. “According to the email, the Justice Department uses terms in the US Code to describe an individual who is illegally in the US, and thus refers to them as ‘an illegal alien.’”
We’re not being racist, I can imagine America’s most racist Keebler elf explaining at the time, that usual devious grin across his face. We’re just following the law, that’s all. But sometimes the law is unjust, and needs to be changed.
Words matter, especially when the words of the previous president were the same words used by the white supremacist terrorist who traveled hours to El Paso, Texas, in 2019 to shoot and kill Mexicans. “Words have consequences,” El Paso Rep. Veronica Escobar warned following that terror attack. She was horrifically proven right several years later when the previous president whipped his supporters into a frenzy following his 2020 election defeat, resulting in the deadly seditionist attack on the U.S. Capitol.
“Words matter,” tweeted Washington state Rep. Pramila Jayapal. “Our work to turn our immigration system into a humane one that treats all immigrants with dignity and respect starts here. No immigrant is an alien.”