Alienated: It’s time to abandon the term ‘illegal alien’


It’s time to stop referring to undocumented immigrants as ‘illegal aliens.’ 

As the son of a legal immigrant from Latin America, I cringe at our elected officials’ insensitivity, characterizing these human beings as second-class extraterrestrial specimens.

Among some of my undocumented immigrant peers, none possess swollen skulls, cold, wrinkly fingers, or roll up to the office in a UFO convertible.

{mosads}History reminds us of how inappropriate legislative language foreshadowed a pejorative way to demean immigrants in society, particularly from the southern border. Such discrimination lingers in our anger-filled veins even now in a progressive era. 


So, if we can start acting like sane earthlings, I call on journalists, elected officials, and our neighbors to abandon the pernicious tone and correctly address these individuals correctly — unauthorized or undocumented immigrants.

As a refresher for my millennial brethren and fellow readers, we’ve accepted the term ‘illegal alien’ for more than 200 years. The federal government’s use of  ‘alien’ dates back to the 1798 Congress’ Alien and Sedition Acts

Fast forward to 1970: a group of Chicano UCLA students requested the Los Angeles Times to use the term ‘illegal alien’ instead of ‘wetback’ when referring to people who’d crossed illegally from Mexico. Since then, media and elected officials, including former President Ronald Reagan have normalized its use.

Only recently have we sought to rectify our misjudgment by challenging the term’s deeper implications.

At the state level, state senator Tony Mendoza and current Governor Jerry Brown spearheaded California’s withdrawal from the status quo in 2015. By removing the term ‘alien’ from its legislative labor code (when referring to unauthorized immigrants), California encouraged the remaining 49 states to understand the term’s negative connotation as an individual whose identity is falsely labeled as illegal.

The challenge is tailoring the message to conservative audiences in a way that emphasizes the long-term benefit of respectful language over dehumanization.

In our nation’s capitol, Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), proposed the Correcting Hurtful and Alienating Names in Government and Expression Act to Congress in 2015 to remove ‘alien’ and ‘illegal alien’ from congressional legislation and literature.

If we truly are the world’s greatest country in how we treat other humans, then I yield back. After all, it only took us over 140 years to ratify amendments 13 and 19. 

But when motions like Castro’s bill remain inactive in House subcommittee review since 2015, it shouts ‘alienation.’

So, why do we still use these terms? Do our leaders intend to stir constituent passion for political points? Absent your and my political inclinations, I doubt we U.S. citizens say “illegals” or “illegal aliens” when discussing immigration with friends or at the dinner table.

What kind of society are we creating for future generations when we legitimize hateful language in our laws and everyday conversation? Didn’t we cross this bridge when between 2012 and 2016, bi-partisan legislation banned the terms ‘lunatic,’ ‘negro,’ and ‘oriental’ from federal law when referring to mentally handicapped individuals, African-Americans, and Asians, respectively?

Language matters.

And, we cannot continue to alienate millions of hard-working immigrants regardless of their country of origin. Although unauthorized, many have earnestly contributed to our national success. They reside in our neighborhoods, attend our places of worship, and study in our schools. 

To deny their human identity would be inhumane.

If we must indulge in the overarching theme of immigration, then how we’ve referred to undocumented immigrants shows how seriously we’ve tackled comprehensive immigration reform.

Newsflash: It remains unresolved.

Multi-billion dollar walls can turn a blind eye to the problem. But, at a heavy price, they cannot provide a long-term bipartisan vision towards resolution. 

It’s 2017. 

Let’s stop dehumanizing unauthorized immigrants for their mere status, and prohibit ‘illegal alien’ from federal law & conversation.

Immigrants unquestionably deserve justice. But, they also deserve human decency.

Alejandro Alba is a Public Affairs professional based in Washington, D.C. and of Colombian descent. His work has been published in the New York Times in Education, iCNN, and

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags Border illegal aliens Immigration Joaquín Castro Texas undocumented immigrants

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