This week, the Biden administration fulfilled a promise it made on Joe Biden’s first day in office. Agencies that deal with immigration, such as US customs and border patrol, have now been instructed to change their official language practices. Gone are the terms “alien”, “illegal alien” and “assimilation”. Instead, new vocabularies will apply, including the words “noncitizen” for “alien” and “integration” for “assimilation”.
As a former “alien” (who arrived here from the planet “Canada”) and now citizen, here’s what I say to these changes: well, United States, it’s about time! For far too long, so much of the language we use in the US when discussing immigration has been bizarre and dehumanizing. Officials talk about “catch and release”, as if they are chatting about fish when they’re really talking about people’s lives. The term “migrant caravans”, meant to summon images of marauders, is used to describe people searching for refuge together while risking everything in the process. Our southern border is routinely described as being beset by swarms, hordes, swells, or surges, terms that evoke insects or ocean catastrophes – anything, in other words, but people.
The humanity in any immigration policy would be eviscerated by this language. And these dehumanizing terms are deployed so commonly that we may not even notice how much of this damaging rhetoric is deliberate. Usage of the thankfully now-defunct term “illegal aliens” is probably the worst culprit. In 2018, then attorney general Jeff Sessions, whose office was the driving force behind the Trump administration’s unconscionably cruel family separation policy, even told prosecutors not to employ the words “undocumented immigrant” when those words fit the circumstances. Instead, Justice Department lawyers were explicitly instructed to use the term “illegal aliens”.
Sessions’ former boss, Donald Trump, who once said he wanted fewer immigrants to the US from “shithole countries”, routinely and wantonly used the term “illegal alien” whenever he could, including in one of his final speeches, delivered in Alamo, Texas, on 12 January.
These language choices matter. Dehumanize any group of people by language and physical violence often trails not far behind. The 2018 mass killing at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, and the 2019 mass killing in El Paso, Texas, were both motivated by the kind of hatred and fear of immigrants that was frequently stoked by our former president with his flamethrower use of such rhetoric.
The Trump administration clearly sought to weaponize the language around immigration as much as possible, but the term “illegal alien” predates Trump, as does organized opposition to the term. The problem with the term is less about its science-fiction-sounding word “alien” (which is actually derived from English common law) and more with stitching it together with the word “illegal”.
When the word “illegal” modifies not an activity but a person, the life of a human being, including all past experiences and every future dream, simply gets wiped out of existence and substituted instead with lawbreaking. The person is no longer a person; they are just a crime. Notably, we don’t use this kind of language for other misdeeds. We talk about the illegal possession of a gun, to take but one example, not about an illegal possessor.
This contradiction has been noted before. US supreme court justice Sonia Sotomayor took notice of this form of dehumanizing language back in 2009. That year, she became the first justice to use the term “undocumented immigrant” rather than “illegal alien” in a court decision. In 2010, a grassroots movement was started called “Drop the I-Word” to get media organizations to stop using the word “illegal” to describe immigrants. In 2013, the Associated Press updated its influential AP Stylebook, abandoning the term “illegal immigrant” as well. “The Stylebook no longer sanctions the use of ‘illegal’ to describe a person,” it explained. “Instead, ‘illegal’ should describe only an action.”
There are other fundamental problems with the way the term “illegal alien” is commonly used today. Pundits and politicians often deploy it to describe people seeking asylum at our borders, but applying for asylum is a completely legal act. Even crossing the border without authorization (or overstaying a visa) is usually charged as a civil and not a criminal infraction. The term, in other words, is almost always used imprecisely.
The dehumanizing term “illegal aliens” has been around since at least the 1950s, but it has never reached the kind of fever pitch that we hear today. The reason for the change cannot be linked to the number of undocumented people in the country, since that number peaked in 2007. Rather, “illegal alien” has increasingly become a term that politicians, anti-immigrant activists, and some government agencies have used in attempts to shape the debate about immigration for their own political purposes.
The Biden administration’s change of the official language used to discuss immigration is a strategically astute way of disarming immigration detractors, and it may even usher in some level of humanity back into the process. But this isn’t enough, of course. Real immigration reform must follow. Paths to citizenship for the millions of undocumented people who are living in the shadows must be made into law. Unaccompanied minors must be afforded the same levels of safety and dignity we would want for our own children. And asylees must be admitted at far higher numbers than currently permitted.
Don’t get me wrong, changing the language is important, but actions will always speak louder than even the best word changes.
Moustafa Bayoumi is the author of the award-winning books How Does It Feel To Be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America and This Muslim American Life: Dispatches from the War on Terror. He is professor of English at Brooklyn College, City University of New York