Dropping the term ‘alien’ when describing immigrants

One of the offensive ways in which immigrants are treated in the US is using the term ‘alien’ to describe them, sometimes in the form of ‘illegal aliens’. So it is a welcome sign that some states are recognizing it as dehumanizing and moving to drop the term altogether and replace it with words like ‘noncitizen’ or ‘migrant’.

Immigrants and immigrant-rights groups say the term, especially when combined with “illegal,” is dehumanizing and can have a harmful effect on immigration policy.

The word became a focal point of debate in several states earlier this year as the number of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border swelled and led to fierce backlash against Biden administration policies by Republican governors and lawmakers.

Lawmakers in at least seven states considered eliminating use of “alien” and “illegal” in state statutes this year and replacing them with descriptions such as “undocumented” and “noncitizen,” according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Only two states, California and Colorado, actually made the change.

Using “alien” to describe those who are not U.S. citizens has a long history, dating to the nation’s first naturalization law, passed while George Washington was president. Fearing a war with France, Congress also passed the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, which sought to suppress political subversion.

An analysis by The Associated Press (which doesn’t refer to people as “aliens” except in direct quotes) found that more than a dozen states still use the terms “alien” or “illegal” in statutes referring to immigrants. Among them is Texas, where a legislative attempt to transition to different terminology advanced out of committee with bipartisan backing this year but failed to get a hearing before the full Texas House.

Joe Biden had started the process back in April.

Employees of the two main U.S. immigration enforcement agencies were directed Monday to stop referring to migrants as “aliens,” a dated term that many people consider offensive.

Memos issued by Customs and Border Protection, as well as Immigration and Customs Enforcement, tells employees to use the words “non-citizen” or “migrant.” The change reflects guidelines set by the Biden administration, which is reversing many of the anti-immigrant policies of former President Donald Trump.

Instead of “illegal aliens,” which was still being used by some government officials in press releases and elsewhere, the employees of CBP and ICE should instead use “undocumented noncitizen” or “undocumented individual,” according to the memos.

Under the new guidelines, “unaccompanied alien children” would be referred to as “unaccompanied noncitizen children,” according to the memos. Employees are also directed to describe the “assimilation” of refugees and immigrants as “civic integration.”

Needless to say, the usual suspects are objecting to these changes since they take delight in being offensive to anyone that does not belong to their own group.

“We use the term ‘illegal alien’ because they’re here illegally,” said Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas. “This kind of weakness and obsession with political correctness is why we’re having a crisis on the border in the first place.”

Of course, his logic fails because the suggested change is to the word ‘alien’. Also while people may commit illegal acts, it makes little sense to describe people themselves as illegal.

But for people like Cotton, xenophobia is kind of their thing.


  1. JM says

    Migrant sounds weird because it has meaning that don’t match up with this usage. It is often applied to people who move between countries legally so to be clear it will need clarifying. Undocumented migrant works fairly well.

    Undocumented individual sounds like weasel phrasing and will have just as bad a connotation pretty quickly. It would work for a while because it’s clear.

    Noncitizen seems like it would be worse. It evokes the word nonperson every time I hear it.

  2. garnetstar says

    “Alien” needs to be restricted to space beings from Jupiter.

    But, it’ll take them invading the earth to convince the right that all humans have more in common than we do with them.

  3. Kimpatsu5100 says

    Don’t like the word “alien”? Try Japan! (But this is a country where politicians can use the “n” word and never receive any blowback, so…)

  4. Holms says

    Noncitizen see,s like a terrible choice, given there are many legal residents that are not citizens.

  5. Holms says

    Sure, but if we are looking for a word for ‘fellow human being that is here in accordance with law’ and ‘fellow human being that is here but not in accordance with law’, then we need something with a touch more specificity.

  6. friedfish2718 says

    Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never break me.
    From Wikipedia: ‘The rhyme is used as a defense against name-calling and verbal bullying, intended to increase resiliency, avoid physical retaliation and to remain calm and good-living.’
    If the illegal alien gets “triggered”, becomes a brittle delicate snowflake by the legal designation “illegal alien”, said illegal alien cannot be a positive asset for any society/clan/tribe/nation.
    A woke nation becomes a broken nation pretty quickly.

  7. John Morales says


    If the illegal alien gets “triggered”

    Wow, you really are a dolt.

    You have entirely misunderstood the issue at hand; it’s not that unsanctioned residents are “triggered” (a term which you also misunderstand), but that the framework for thinking about them is thus biased.

    (Also, I like how you write “illegal alien”, as if there were such a thing as a ‘legal alien’)

    A woke nation becomes a broken nation pretty quickly.

    No fear of you waking up to reality. 🙂

    (The USA is already broken, this is about fixing it)

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