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The Dehumanizing History Of The Words We’ve Used To Describe Immigrants

13 Aug

The word “alien” will no longer appear in California’s labor code because it could be seen as disparaging to people not born in the United States, thanks to a new law that Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed this week. The move comes at a time when undocumented immigrants are dealing with a string of negative press stemming from Donald Trump’s incendiary comments about Mexican immigrants and the sensationalized killing of Americans at the hands of undocumented criminals.

“’Alien’ is now commonly considered a derogatory term for a foreign-born person and has very negative connotations,” State Sen. Tony Mendoza (D), the measure’s original sponsor, explained.

The term “alien” was first introduced into California’s legislature in 1937 regarding the employment of people who were not born or fully naturalized U.S. citizens, specifically about the order of employment under public works contracts — “first to citizens of the United States, second to citizens of other States in the United States, and third to aliens.” The federal government’s use of the word dates even further back to 1798 when it was used in the Alien and Sedition Acts.

The state legislature repealed most of the labor code sections in 1970, but not the use of the term “alien.” Mendoza’s legislation erases the term “alien” as a definition for the word immigrant. It will go into effect on January 1, 2016.

Mendoza received broad support, but State Assemblyman Matthew Harper (R) — the only vote against his bill — told the San Francisco Chronicle that the measure was “just a way for legislators to get their names in the paper….[t]he negative connotations come from the fact that people are breaking the law. Changing the word won’t change the fact that folks are here illegally.”

Both “alien” and the synonymous term “illegal immigrant” are favored by opponents of comprehensive immigration reform. “Alien” is still preserved in federal immigration law and in other states. And many lawmakers have co-opted the phrase to drive political narratives: In a 2005 memo, Republican strategist Frank Luntz called on the GOP to publicly use the term “illegal immigration” as a way to push for border security.

For advocates, the terms are dehumanizing. “You are inherently criminalizing them as wrong, as other, as not right,” Alida Garcia, the director of coalitions & policy at the immigrant advocacy group, told ThinkProgress.

“It’s not just because it’s derogatory, but because it’s factually incorrect,” Ryan Eller, the executive director at the immigrant advocacy group Define American, told ThinkProgress. “Most of the time when we hear [illegal immigrant] used, most of the time the shorter version ‘illegals’ is being used as a noun, which implies that a human being is perpetually illegal. There is no other classification that I’m aware of where the individual is being rendered as illegal as opposed to the actions of that individuals.”

In recent years, there has been growing momentum to move away from using such terms. For instance, a bipartisan group of senators barely used the phrase “illegal immigrant” in their outline of a comprehensive immigration reform plan in 2013. At the time, the Hispanic Leadership Network, a leading conservative Latino group, suggested Republican congressional members should use “undocumented immigrants” rather than “illegals” and “aliens” and should never use the phrase “anchor baby.”

The terms have started to fall out of favor among journalists, too. A 2013 Pew Research report found that several news organizations, like the Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press, had reduced or banned the use of the word “illegal immigrant.”

More recently, two journalists created an automated Twitter account that detects tweets using the term “illegal immigrant” and responds to users asking them to use “undocumented immigrant” or “unauthorized immigrant” instead. Advocates began campaigns called “Words Matter” and “Drop the I-word” to call on members of the media to stop using any derivatives of the phrase “illegal immigration” in their news coverage. And, while his publication the New Yorker doesn’t have a formal policy on the matter, prominent journalist Jeffrey Toobin noted that he would stop using “illegal immigrant” earlier this month.

“The word ‘alien’ much like the word ‘illegal’ is an inappropriate word to describe a population of people and a human being,” Arturo Carmona, executive director at, told ThinkProgress. His organization was part of a coalition of groups calling on the public to strip the terms from their vernacular through the “Drop the I-word” campaign. “The media is being a bit more sensitive, there’s steps forward being taken, but we still have a long road ahead.”

Eller says the movement away from these words isn’t about being politically correct. “It’s about creating a society where people aren’t defined by those societal prejudices and instead embracing our heritage as an immigrant nation,” he said.

Carmona added, “When you look at African Americans, there’s a series of derogatory language and you saw the same type of responses coming from folks that did not want to change the status quo and wanted to preserve discrimination against communities of color.”

Public attitudes toward immigrants can have a lasting impact on U.S. policy. A 2010 Social Influence study found that the term “illegal alien” evokes greater prejudice against Mexican immigrants because the term is associated with “increased perceptions of threat.” What’s more, previous research has found that people who hold negative stereotypes of ethnic groups like Latinos are more likely to support restricting immigration.

Immigration advocates say that’s why it’s worth changing the language used to talk about immigrants. “There’s no perfect way to quantify the impact of that, but that really does impact how we view millions and millions of people,” Garcia noted.