This new year, let’s stop using the word ‘alien’

Getty Images

The first time I heard someone called an “alien” in a legal context was over breakfast with a roommate in law school. After college, she’d spent a year playing basketball in France. Why leave such a cool job, I wondered. She explained that French law prohibits “alien” athletes from staying indefinitely.

The word “alien” sounded funny — it wasn’t yet part of popular discourse in America in 1985, or not as a politically charged term for immigrants. When I seemed confused, she wiggled her index fingers above her ears, pretending to be an extraterrestrial.

{mosads}It turned out that “alien” already existed in the law as a technical term for a noncitizen, but most people associated it instead with science fiction.

Although “alien” terminology has seeped into earlier immigration debates here, President Trump revitalized it in the 2016 election cycle by brandishing “alien” and “illegal aliens” to pit his supporters against asylum seekers and other immigrants.

Then, before the midterm elections, those words gained extra political heft because Republicans who uttered them were signaling they backed the president’s entire agenda, not just his hard line approach to immigration.

The word “alien” was codified in 1790, when President George Washington approved granting limited citizenship to an “alien” who is a “free white person” in our original Naturalization Act. The term stuck, and is still used in the Act’s current version and in various other statutes.

Our founding fathers borrowed “alien” from English jurist William Blackstone, who, in 1765, wrote that the English population was divided into “[n]atural-born subjects…and aliens, such as are born out of it.” For Washington, “alien” didn’t have any negative overtones.

Here’s the problem. In recent years, the word has developed offensive and dehumanizing connotations. This isn’t the first time that our legal language has lagged behind popular usage. Indeed, “Negro” and “Oriental” remained in federal law until 2016. But of course, those words weren’t being spoken in court or in mainstream media

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a human “alien” is “a foreigner, a stranger, an outsider” or someone who is “opposed, repugnant.”

Although most news outlets no longer use “alien” to describe non-citizens, the word remains prominent in the far-right media. Breitbart and Fox News frequently call immigrants “illegal aliens” because they prefer language that encourages fear and distrust of immigrants.

At the Supreme Court, conservative Justices still freely use the term to refer to non-citizens. Recently, in a case about the detention of immigrants during deportation proceedings, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said, “I can see the equities when the alien has been free for a number of years. But Congress, wisely or not, thought that this class of aliens was dangerous and they should not be trusted.”

The Department of Homeland Security also condones the word. In fact, it assigns non-citizens an Alien Registration Number (A-Number), which is a string of numbers preceded by the letter “A.” A-Numbers have been used in this country since 1940, when Congress passed the Alien Registration Act. It became law during a time, like the present, when our government was particularly unwelcoming to people fleeing persecution.

In 1939, for instance, U.S. officials turned away a boat carrying 937 passengers, almost all Jewish refugees fleeing the Third Reich. More than a quarter of them eventually perished in the Holocaust. As anti-Semitism worsened in Europe, countless Jews sought refuge here. Many were rejected for allegedly posing a threat to national security.

At about the same time that the U.S. began using A-Numbers, the Nazis were tattooing a series of numbers, also preceded by the letter “A,” onto the forearms of Hungarian Jews imprisoned at Auschwitz. For me, this chilling coincidence is reason enough to change the way we keep track of asylum seekers and other immigrants.

There’s evidence that “alien” terminology is on its way out. In 2015, California expunged “alien” from its labor code. The following year, a group of Dartmouth college students convinced the Library of Congress to remove “alien” and “illegal alien” from its subject headings. But before less prejudicial terms could be added, Republicans from the House Appropriations Committee demanded that the library reverse course.

In January, when Democrats have the majority in the House of Representatives, it’s the right time to reinstate the Library of Congress’s decision to strike “alien.” And with all the baggage the term carries, we should urge friends and colleagues to make a New Year’s Resolution to ditch it in favor of words like “noncitizen” or “asylum seeker” or another non-pejorative term that fits the individual situation.

Elizabeth Rosenman is a Seattle-based immigration attorney and a member of American Immigration Lawyers Association. 

Tags Donald Trump Immigration

The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.

More Immigration News

See All
See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video