The provision in the 2017 Legislative Branch spending bill has drawn backlash from the Tri-Caucus, made up of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC), the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC), and the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). The spending bill that contains the measure provides funding for House operations, such as members’ salaries and money for supporting agencies such as the Government Accountability Office.
The Tri-Caucus members’ opposition was expressed in a letter delivered to the House Appropriations Committee, which oversees spending bills.
Throughout the 1900s, the Library of Congress used the term “Negroes,” which was then changed to “Blacks” and later to “Afro-Americans” and finally to “African Americans,” the members said in the letter.
There have been similar changes to U.S. code to reflect how society views words, such as the way “lunatic” and “mentally retarded” have been removed from U.S. statutes.
“We shouldn’t be using a harmful, dehumanizing term like ‘alien’ to categorize individuals who contribute so much to our country,” Castro said. “In the past, as society has come to understand the pain certain words can cause communities, we’ve done the right thing and eliminated those terms from our acceptable vocabulary.”
The campaign against the Library of Congress’ use of alien and illegal alien began when students at Dartmouth University from a coalition of civil rights groups, Dartmouth’s Coalition for Immigration Reform, Equality and DREAMers, first appealed to the Library of Congress to remove the terms from their subject headings in 2014.
After a long battle, which included the American Library Association, the Library of Congress announced they would make the change.
Republicans responded quickly and now are trying to force the Library of Congress to reverse their decision and use the terms in their subject heading through the legislation.
Inés Casillas, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara who writes about the importance of language in policy advocacy in her book Sounds of Belonging: U.S. Spanish-language Radio and Public Advocacy, says that the fight over terms like “alien” and “illegal alien” are important to those who want to separate citizens and non-citizens.
“Alien in today’s terms sounds literally like you are from outer space, you cannot create more space physically and psychologically between ‘us’ and ‘them’ than using those terms,” said Casillas.
Casillas says the debate over the language is not just about immigrants, but Latinos, because of the number of Latino families in the United States who have family or friends who are undocumented.
“There are 55 million Latinos in this country and they all are forced to carry the weight of the term through family and friends,” she said.
Disparaging terms have been used historically against minorities in legislation. In 1862, California passed the “Anti-Coolie Act,” which claimed to “protect free white labor against competition with Chinese coolie labor.” The term coolie, according to the Oxford Dictionary, was used to describe unskilled native labor in India, China, and other Asian countries, and is considered offensive.
Otto Santa Ana, a linguist and professor at UCLA who focuses on language that constructs social hierarchies, said “Joaquin Castro’s letter is an effort to depoliticize the Library of Congress’s classification system. It is akin to replacing 19th century eugenic or racial terms with more up-to-date and scientifically neutral terms.”
According to Santa Ana “alien is an ancient term from 15th century English Common law. The alternative terms are not politicized ones,” and as meanings of words change, they should be updated to match the contemporary meanings of the word.