TThis week, the Biden administration turned a promise did on Joe Biden’s first day in office. Agencies that deal with immigration, such as customs and the US Border Patrol, have been instructed to change their official language practices. Gone are the terms “alien”, “illegal alien” and “assimilation”. Instead, new vocabularies will be applied, including the words “non-citizen” for “foreigner” and “integration” for “assimilation”.
As a former “alien” (who came here from the planet “Canada”) and now a citizen, this is what I say to these changes: well, United States, it was about time! For too long, much of the language we use in the United States when we talk about immigration has been strange and dehumanizing. Officials speak of “catch and release“As if they are talking about fish when in reality they are talking about people’s lives. The term “migrant caravans”, intended to summon images of marauders, is used to describe people seeking refuge together while risking everything in the process. Our southern border is routinely described as riddled with swarms, hordes, waves, or tidal waves, terms that evoke insects or ocean catastrophes – anything, in other words, less people.
Humanity in any immigration policy would be gutted by this language. And these dehumanizing terms are used so frequently that we may not even realize how much of this damaging rhetoric is deliberate. The use of the fortunately 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 inordinately cruel family separation policy, including told prosecutors do not use the words “undocumented immigrant” when those words are appropriate to the circumstances. Instead, attorneys for the Justice Department were explicitly instructed to use the term “illegal aliens.”
Former Sessions boss Donald Trump, who once said he wanted fewer immigrants to the United States from “shitty countries,” routinely and nonsensically used the term “illegal alien” whenever he could, including in one of his final speeches, delivered to Alamo, Texas, on January 12.
These language choices are important. Dehumanizing any group of people through language and physical violence is often 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 motivated by the kind of hatred and fear of immigrants that our former president frequently stoked with his use of flamethrowers. 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 derivative of English common law) and more with linking it together with the word “illegal”.
When the word “illegal” does not modify an activity but a person, the life of a human being, including all past experiences and all future dreams, simply disappears and is replaced by the violation of the law. The person is no longer a person; they are just a crime. In particular, we do not use this type of language for other misdeeds. We speak of the illegal possession of a weapon, for example, not of an illegal possessor.
This contradiction has been pointed out before. US Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor took note of this form of dehumanizing language in 2009. That year, she became the first justice use the term “undocumented immigrant” instead of “illegal alien” in a court decision. In 2010, a grassroots movement called “Drop the I word“To get the media to stop using the word” illegal “to describe immigrants. In 2013, the Associated Press updated its influential AP style book, also abandoning the term “illegal immigrant”. “The Stylebook no longer sanctions the use of ‘illegal’ to describe a person,” he explained. “Instead, ‘illegal’ should describe only one action.”
There are other fundamental problems with the way the term “illegal alien” is commonly used today. Experts and politicians often implement 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 staying longer than a visa) is usually charged as a civil and not a criminal offense. In other words, the term is almost always used imprecisely.
The dehumanizing term “illegal aliens” has existed since at least the 1950sBut it has never reached the kind of fever we hear today. The reason for the change cannot be linked to the number of undocumented persons 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 an attempt to shape the immigration debate for their own political purposes.
The Biden administration’s change from the official language used to discuss immigration is a strategically astute way to disarm immigration naysayers, and may even usher in a certain level of humanity in the process. But this is not enough, of course. You must follow a true immigration reform. Pathways to citizenship for the millions of undocumented people living in the shadows must become law. Unaccompanied minors should enjoy the same levels of safety and dignity that we would like for our own children. And asylees must be admitted in a much larger number than is currently allowed.
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 teaches English at Brooklyn College, City University of New York.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism