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'Alien' dehumanizes immigrants. Our language must change.

Colorado's and California's shifts in language are small but needed steps toward humanizing immigrants.
Photo illustration: A half ripped paper with the word \"alien\" on it.
It's just a word — but a powerful one.Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

Earlier this year, U.S. media outlets — both on the right and the left— were guilty of equating a humanitarian migrant crisis to a military invasion or a natural disaster. The choices of imagery and language — think “surge,” “wave” “crisis” — did nothing to expand the dialogue as to why people migrate in the first place or why it has happened for so long. Instead, it highlighted how American journalism treats immigration like a sporting event, choosing a play-by-play approach instead of informing the public with actual context.

That’s why recent news that California and Colorado are dropping terms like “alien” in legislative statutes for words like “noncitizen” is so noteworthy. It might feel symbolic at best, even insignificant to most, but to people who have felt the wrath of America’s bipartisan tradition of demonizing and dehumanizing immigrant communities, such symbols are small yet important steps in injecting some dignity into a contentious decadeslong debate that shows little signs of ever ending.

Language and how we frame contentious political issues matter, and little has been done to acknowledge the fact that immigrants in this country — or, more accurately, brown immigrants from the Global South — are real people with dreams, hopes and fears. They are not numbers, and they are definitely not “aliens,” “illegal” or not. Any effort to bring more attention to their points of view should be commended, although it is obvious these perspectives are still mostly invisible and severely underrepresented in the American mainstream.

We could scroll through history and call out all the times America celebrated its pastime of demonizing immigrants — from the Know-Nothings to the Chinese Exclusion Act to Operation Wetback— but one needs to go back only 26 years to get a realistic sense of how this country views people who come from other countries.

“We will try to do more to speed the deportation of illegal aliens who are arrested for crimes, to better identify illegal aliens in the workplace. … We are a nation of immigrants. But we are also a nation of laws. It is wrong and ultimately self-defeating for a nation of immigrants to permit the kind of abuse of our immigration laws we have seen in recent years, and we must do more to stop it.”

Those words didn’t come from President Donald Trump in 2016. They came from President Bill Clinton in 1995 during his State of the Union speech to Congress. The notion of “illegal aliens” as “criminals” has roots with both Democrats and Republicans. Such beliefs were further crystalized after the 9/11 attacks, essentially cementing an immigration debate that emphasizes stopping the problem over understanding the economic benefits of what immigration brings to the U.S.

The notion of “illegal aliens” as “criminals” has roots with both Democrats and Republicans.

Since then, immigrants and their allies have lost their chance to humanize their plights. Migration become a national security issue that has seen a push for a militarized border, a rise in the immigration enforcement industrial complex and a national call to get tough on the “invasion” from the “illegal aliens.”

It has gotten to the point that anyone who dares challenge this onslaught of dehumanization risks being instantly labeled a traitor to one’s country. It has led to Republicans basing entire national campaigns on immigrant fear and a Democratic Party that promises change because “we are a nation of immigrants” but can’t get its entire caucus to act on an actual immigrant relief plan even when they are in power, as is the case right now on Capitol Hill.

All this is happening while the Biden administration continues to detain more than 13,000 migrant children and keeps Trump administration policies like Title 42 and "Remain in Mexico" intact. And how can we forget the increased deportations of Haitian migrants earlier this year?

While these policies remain, the Biden administration did make the effort to propose removing the term “alien” from U.S. immigration laws. But this symbolic move, similar to what California and Colorado have instituted, is a stark contrast to the reality of how immigration and immigrant communities are still being targeted.

If anything, there has been complicity by Americans, American media and both political parties to snuff out immigrant voices. The Trump administration was an extreme example, but the current administration has yet to deliver on changing the narrative.

If anything, there has been complicity by Americans, American media and both political parties to snuff out immigrant voices.

There is still a prevalent belief in American government that immigrants are “illegal” and therefore criminals — that they are not part of this fabric, even when their economic contributions to this country are undeniable. For example, a recent report from New American Economy said that in 2019 undocumented Mexican immigrants “earned almost $92 billion in household income and contributed almost $9.8 billion in federal, state, and local taxes.” When adding countries like El Salvador, India, Guatemala and Honduras, the total household income rises to $140 billion and tax contributions increase to about $15.7 billion.

Americans also tend to easily overlook how many essential workers are migrant workers who literally risked their lives during the pandemic to make sure we stayed fed. When will Americans fully embrace that fact, instead of dehumanizing the people who have helped keep them alive? Probably never, but that is why the symbols of removing terms like “alien” to describe actual human beings are so needed — even if they are far from a fix.

The changes instituted in California and Colorado will likely get overlooked by the vast majority of Americans. But if Americans actually believe the immigration debate must shift to become more “humane,” it starts by ending dehumanizing terms that have hurt immigrants for far too long now.