The Guardian Australia

The Biden administra­tion has ended use of the phrase ‘illegal alien’. It’s about time

- Moustafa Bayoumi

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

When the word “illegal” modifies not an activity but a person, the life of a human being, simply gets wiped out of existence and substitute­d instead with lawbreakin­g

 ?? Photograph: Jim Urquhart/Reuters ?? A man seeking asylum holds his infant daughter as they wait to be transporte­d by the US Border Patrol after crossing from Mexico into California on 19 April.
Photograph: Jim Urquhart/Reuters A man seeking asylum holds his infant daughter as they wait to be transporte­d by the US Border Patrol after crossing from Mexico into California on 19 April.

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