PASS THE MIC
Editorials, Comments, and Opinions
Alien: What's in a Name? Everything!
Hart is a
the law firm of
David J. Hart,
P.A. in Miami.
views do not
views of AILA
nor do they
legal advice or
egal Alien. Arriving alien. Illegal alien.
Enemy alien. Extraterrestrial. Stranger.
Foreign. Different. Apart.
"Alien" is the longstanding legal term used in
U.S. immigration law to label anyone who is "not
a citizen or national of the United States." INA
§101(a)(3). The term has been widespread for so
long that it rolls off the tongues of immigration
advocates and critics alike.
Words can heal or pollute, so what we call people
matters. As Congress yet again dawdles with
reforming the country's immigration system, the
term "illegal alien" is again a political weapon
serving to dehumanize and demonize more than
12 million people in an effort to engender fear and
loathing and, therefore, stymie reform.
In a huge step forward, the Associated Press (AP),
the world's largest news-gathering operation,
finally opted to label actions and not people as
"illegal" and decided to drop the term "illegal alien"
or "illegal immigrant" from its stylebook, to which
most major newspapers adhere. The AP and its
news media followers had officially used the term
Advocates deem the change a blessing. But it's
not enough. "Alien" might be the legally correct
term for anyone in the United States who is not
a citizen, but is it the right term? In the public
consciousness, labeling someone an "alien" has
the distinct effect of isolating that person from
the mainstream or social norm, whether they are
here legally or illegally. Even though the term
is embedded in legal jargon and lay language,
"alien" has a ring of misery and loneliness to it.
In the ongoing immigration debate, it can be as
inflammatory as the term "illegal."
Calling for a Sea Change
With the more recent ebb and flow of efforts to
reform the immigration system, the media have
examined its use of certain labels. Lawrence
Downes, in a New York Times op-ed dated October
28, 2007, criticized the term "illegal" because it
"pollutes the debate. It blocks solutions. … Used as
an irreducible modifier for a large and largely decent
group of people, it is badly damaging. As a code
word for racial and ethnic hatred, it is detestable."
Downes did not use the term "alien" in his column,
but rather uses the term "immigrant," raising the
question of whether he intentionally avoided the
term because he deems it loathsome as well.
The Miami Herald, in a 2007 series examining
its own coverage of immigration issues, went
so far as to say that labels determine who wins.
"The labels that stick become the prism through
which the nation views the issue," wrote Edward
Schumacher-Matos, the newspaper's thenombudsman.
We need to get rid of "alien"—at least in everyday
parlance—and replace it with something neutral or
factual that does not play into the zealotry of either
side of the immigration debate, such as noncitizen,
nonresident, migrant, or foreign national.
N OVEMBER/ D ECEMBER 2013