Opinion: Language Changes In Immigration Debate Are Attempts To Change The Narrative

When most people think of the word alien, they imagine eerie extraterrestrial beings that hover over earth in their spaceships. However, this term had been around long before these popular sci-fi creatures became a thing. Typically, the word “alien” has been used to refer to “a foreign-born” resident who has not been naturalized and is still subject or citizen of a foreign country. 

Now, under President Joe Biden’s administration, using the word alien when referring to someone who is under illegal status is considered dehumanizing language.

Recently, the Biden administration announced that they plan to remove the term “illegal alien” from the government’s immigration laws. According to an article published by the New York Post, the administration’s new memorandum “urged officials to use the word non-citizen instead of alien as well as more inclusive choices.” Tracy Renaud, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ acting director, communicated to administration staffers the “preferred terminology for key immigration topics.” 

The terms included in the article would replace “illegal alien” with “undocumented noncitizen” or “undocumented individual,” and “assimilation,” replaced with “integration” or “civic integration.” But where do these inclusive choices stop?

Clearly, the problem is not the administration’s desire to act humanely. This, in and of itself, is a noble pursuit, yet it fails tremendously when the intentions negate the truth. The issue then arises because objectivity is continuously tossed out the window in the name of inclusivity. Language and rhetoric that has been used for years with a clear and concise meaning is now labeled “inhumane.” 

Cataloging words as dehumanizing is a huge deal and cannot be taken lightly. Not only does it change the way these words are perceived by the public, but it poses a danger to those who choose to continue using them. 

By its definition, although those aren’t worth much these days, to dehumanize someone means “to deprive [them] of human qualities, personality or dignity,” according to Merriam-Webster. Furthermore, dehumanization when linked to language refers to words that liken individual human beings to non-human animals, words charged with verbal abuse or erasing someone’s voice from discourse. 

Although the immigration process, when not handled ethically, can be dehumanizing to an individual, using the word illegal alien to refer to them is not. 

As an international student, there are laws I have to follow. In order to maintain F-1 status, which allows me to legally remain in the US, I have to be in school as a full-time student. The moment I step out of this umbrella of protection, and refuse to abide by the law, I lose my status and acquire a different one: I am now an illegal alien. 

This term does not, suddenly, make me any less human, and referring to me as an “undocumented noncitizen” doesn’t suddenly make me more human either. 

The Human Rights Library at the University of Minnesota defines an undocumented noncitizen as “a person who is in a country in which he or she is not a citizen, without any legal right or permission to be present, and can be removed by that country.” Sound familiar? 

So again, the problem is not a desire to be “more humane,” but rather that acceptable terms are being redefined as unacceptable. Why is one of these terms now labeled inhumane while the other is “more inclusive,” if they mean the same thing?

 Suddenly, individuals who are simply using language as it is meant to be used, based on what words mean, run the risk of being labeled themselves as dehumanizing and inhumane, without any real assessment of their moral character. 

Through these subtle, seemingly “positive” changes, administrations have the power to change perceptions, redefine reality and control the narrative, and this is the real problem at the end of the day. 

Rosa Elias is a Social Media Manager. Follow her on Twitter at @rosaeliasnajri.

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