The demeaning reference dates back to 1789 in US law and is overused by right-wing conservative media to vilify undocumented immigrants in the country.
The US government describes people in the US who do not have citizenship as “illegal aliens.” It’s also a term that right-wing conservative media love to use to describe this community, many of whom are essential workers. During the span of six months, former President Donald Trump used the offensive term “illegal alien” 35 times. The Biden administration is saying ‘Enough.’
President Biden’s new sweeping immigration reform bill aims to ratify US laws that refer to undocumented people as “aliens” and change it to “noncitizens.” The change, while subtly mentioned in Biden’s immigration bill that outlines an “earned roadmap to citizenship for undocumented individuals,” is monumental.
Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-Texas) tweeted, “A path to citizenship our undocumented neighbors is long overdue. President Biden’s bill also includes a provision that I’ve championed: replacing the word ‘alien’ which has been used as a dehumanizing slur. Words matter—and this measure speaks volumes.”
As of now, the US code defines “alien” as “any person not a citizen or national of the United States.” The dictionary defines “alien” as a person “belonging to a foreign country or nation.” In the US, the term dates back to 1789 during the “Alien and Sedition Acts,” in which a series of four laws passed by the US Congress “amid widespread fear that war with France was imminent. The four laws—which remain controversial to this day—restricted the activities of foreign residents in the country and limited freedom of speech and of the press.”
In recent years, several news media outlets have also restructured their language to reflect a humanitarian way of describing undocumented people. Pew Research shows that the use of “illegal alien,” is considered insensitive by many, and reached its low point in 2013, dropping to 5% of terms used. It had consistently been in double digits in the other periods studied, peaking at 21% in 2007.
Other countries such as Canada and Australia do not use the term “alien” to describe undocumented people, and President Biden hopes to do the same in the US. Latinos, many of who have fought to erase the term in everyday language, welcomed the overdue change by the Biden administration.
Vanessa Parra Sparkles, communications director at Define American, tweeted, “Language matters. How we describe people sticks, it affects how we treat them. Thrilled to see this as part of this immigration package: The bill also would replace the term ‘alien’ in US immigration laws with ‘noncitizen.’”