A Note on “Alien” Terminology in the Public Discussion of Immigration and Immigrants
posted by Kevin Johnson
Yesterday, USA Today’s Emily Bazar led an interesting discussion between representatives of NUMBERS USA, a group seeking to reduce immigration, and National Council for La Raza, which seeks to protect the rights of immigrants, about the appropriate use of terminology when referring to undocumented immigrants, “aliens”, “illegal aliens”, immigrants, human beings, etc. A video of the discussion — debate really — can be viewed by clicking th elink above.
Just to be clear, the omnibus federal immigration statute, the Immigration & Nationality Act, does not generally employ the term “illegal alien.” When that phrase is used in the public context, it usually betrays a particular view about undocumented immigration in the speaker. Guss what that view might be? ”Illegal aliens” has grown to be a deeply pejorative term in the public discourse.
Today, “illegal aliens” often is used as code for the stereotypical undocumented Mexican immigrant and sometimes even persons of Mexican ancestry generally. Importantly, the best available estimates are that roughly 60 percent of the undocumented immigrant population is from Mexico (and thus 40 percent is not).
in contrast to “illegal alien,” the term “alien” is effectively the DNA of the INA, with the statute defining the admissions and removal criteria for “aliens,” i.e., persons who are not U.S. citizens or nationals. Still, the use of the term “alien’ in public discussions of immigration tends to have a distancing and dehumanizing impact. To paraphrase Alexander Bickel, it is far easier to deny rights to a noncitizen than a person.
For discussion of the terminological question in some detail, see Mai Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (2004) and Kevin R. Johnson, Aliens and the U.S. Immigration Laws: The Social and Legal Construction of Nonpersons, 28 U. Miami Inter-American Law Review 263 (1996-97).