The Associated Press ran an emotional plug for efforts to nix the term “alien” to describe an illegal entrant to the United States last week. It’s no secret what the opinion of the AP is, after the corporate outlet updated its stylebook in 2013 to remove not just “illegal alien” but even “illegal immigrant.”
But journalists and lawmakers alike would be prudent to brush up on their history. After all, “alien” is a reasonable and just term deeply baked into the founding of this country — contrary to the talking points of demagogues from Justice Sonia Sotomayor to the Biden administration.
Under a Biden order last April, U.S. immigration enforcement agencies were instructed to no longer use “alien” or “illegal alien” or “assimilation” in reference to immigrants. Alien was adjusted to “noncitizen or migrant,” illegal to “undocumented,” and assimilation to “integration.”
“As the nation’s premier law enforcement agency, we set a tone and example for our country and partners across the world,” Troy Miller, U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s acting commissioner, wrote in a memo at the time. “We enforce our nation’s laws while also maintaining the dignity of every individual with whom we interact. The words we use matter and will serve to further confer that dignity to those in our custody.”
California removed the term “alien” from its labor and education codes in 2015 and 2016, and New York City amended its charter and administrative code to ban the word in 2020. And a Colorado law signed in 2015 scrubbed “illegal alien” from government contracts in favor of the term “worker without authorization.”
Democrats are not letting up on the terminology fight. It’s a language battle. Lora Ries, a senior research fellow in homeland security at The Heritage Foundation, told me the left is pushing the linguistic change to erase the line between legal and illegal immigration.
“Under federal law, any individual in this country who is not a citizen is an alien,” Ries said. “And any alien who is here without permission is here illegally. If we are going to discuss and debate the issue of immigration and what our public policy should be, we should at least use accurate, precise terms.”
The linguistic initiative is fueled by the erroneous notion that there ought to be open borders. This much was signaled by Democrat state Sen. Julie Gonzalez in Colorado, the co-sponsor of the state’s new law. “That language has been offensive for many people,” she told the AP. “And some of the rationale behind that is really rooted in this idea that a person can certainly commit an illegal act, but no human being themselves is illegal.”
While California and Colorado are currently the only two states that have adjusted state statutes to fit the politically correct lingo, at least seven states this year have seen lawmakers try to squeeze through the terms “undocumented” and “noncitizen” into law. But “alien” is a term with a rich history in the U.S. There is nothing racist, xenophobic, or nativist about it.
William Blackstone’s description of the term “alien” in his 1770 “Commentaries on the Laws of England,” in which he described an alien as someone born outside the “dominions” of the king, set the bar for America’s usage of the term. Blackstone made a clear distinction between “natural-born” citizens and those from a foreign land — who he did not determine ought to maintain the same legal rights.
Twenty years after Blackstone’s work, President George Washington would approve the first Naturalization Act and instill the word “alien” into the American statutory lexicon. In 1798, President John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts. The acts granted the president the power to expel “aliens” thought to be “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States” or who may be engaged in “any treasonable or secret machinations against the government.”
“And in case any alien, so ordered to depart, shall be found at large within the United States after the time limited in such order for his departure. . . every such alien shall, on conviction thereof, be imprisoned for a term not exceeding three years, and shall never after be admitted to become a citizen of the United States,” section I of the acts state.
Fast forward and “alien” has been deployed on a federal and state level to identify those who are living in the United States without permission. Its definition from Merriam-Webster is “a foreign-born resident who has not been naturalized and is still a subject or citizen of a foreign country.”
“Proponents [of changing terms] want to persuade the American public that those here illegally are no different than those who followed the rules to come here lawfully,” Ries also said. “But America, like every other country, has a sovereign right to a lawful and orderly immigration system. And Americans, including lawful immigrants, want immigration laws enforced.”
As we have witnessed, the left is engaged in a battle to alter meaning. But it’s vital to look at the broader trend. There is a language war in general, and immigration is just the tip of the iceberg. Whether it be the pertinent word “riot,” terms about sex, “black,” or the phrase “pro-life,” transforming words remains a foremost concern of elite institutions captured by the left. Look no further than the attempts to conceal critical race theory, too.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration has fiddled while a record number of illegal aliens come into the U.S. There were 164,303 encounters at the Southern border in October alone, more than double last October’s 71,929 apprehensions. And the surge continues.
Not only is it pointless to denigrate reasonable norms through language reconstruction, but it is harmful. Using “illegal alien” when America faces a significant border surge is the moral thing to do. It’s long past time to stop pretending otherwise.
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