We have all heard the terminology. Whether it be referring to an individual as “illegal” or laws classifying noncitizens as “aliens,” language used in describing immigrants carries stigma. However, a recent movement to modernize these terms is beginning to gain acceptance.
History of Immigrant Terminology
The language of immigration law is rooted in its lengthy history. The use of the word “alien” to describe foreigners dates to the 17th century, when William Blackstone used the term in his Commentaries on the Laws of England. Understandably, when British expatriates formed the earliest colonies in North America, this term followed them to the New World.
In fact, the earliest legislation dealing with immigration in the United States used “alien” to describe foreign individuals. The term was widely used in the Naturalization Act, passed in the first Congress of the United States, as well as in the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts, passed in 1798.
Modern immigration law was undoubtedly shaped by the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act (“INA”) in 1965 by President Lyndon Johnson. By signing the INA into law, President Johnson largely abolished inequitable quota restrictions based on immigrants’ countries of origin. In doing so, the law restricted immigration from Western Hemispheric countries to the United States for the first time, giving rise to increased immigration from Mexico and Central America.
Certainly, throughout U.S. history, legislation addressing immigration has dealt with many pressing and divisive issues. And in recent years, questions have increasingly arisen about the role that language plays in shaping the narrative around immigration.
Changing the Narrative
Recent U.S. politics have given rise to the pervasive use of the term “illegal immigrant.” In 2010, the Applied Research Center, now known as Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation, launched the “Drop the I-Word” campaign. By urging media outlets to reconsider the use of the term “illegal” to describe immigrants, the movement continues to seek to address the stigma associated with the term.
In 2013, the movement to undermine the use of stigmatized terminology secured a victory when the Associated Press updated its stylebook to forbid phrases such as “illegal alien” or “illegal immigrant.”
Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor agreed with these changes in 2014, noting her preference for using “undocumented immigrants” to describe foreign-born individuals entering the United States without permission.” She noted that “to call them illegal aliens seemed and does seem insulting to me.”
American legislators have recently taken up the cause. In 2015, Congressman Joaquín Castro of Texas introduced a proposal to remove the phrase “illegal alien” from federal laws, replacing it with undocumented “foreign national.”
Earlier this year, President Biden proposed a similar change in sweeping immigration reform legislation. Certainly, the proposal stands in stark contrast to President Biden’s predecessor, who encouraged the use of the term “illegal” to describe undocumented workers.
More recently, some state lawmakers are following suit. To date, California and Colorado are the only two states to have signed such legislation into law.
Whether the movement to change the narrative gains widespread acceptance remains to be seen. However, it appears the efforts to eliminate dehumanizing language are gaining increasing acceptance.