Words matter. So let’s talk about “illegal alien.”

Last night, with Halloween on the mind, we were thinking about creepy creatures. Monsters. Ghosts. Aliens, maybe?

Tonight, let’s talk about something else that should give us chills: How everyday language permits dehumanizing thoughts and actions toward people. Okay, it’s not a monster, but this should be frightening because this is a real problem that impacts real people.

This day after the Halloween revelry, we’re going to talk about the use of the word “illegal alien.”

Over the summer, the GOP majority in the House blocked the Library of Congress’s attempt to remove the word “illegal alien” from its subject headings. This would have set a precedent for other libraries, and the terminology of future discussions, about undocumented people living in the United States.

Republican leaders, including Sen. Ted Cruz and Rep. Diane Black, voted against the term change. Rep. Black cited “sanitized political speech” that gratifies “left-wing special interests” and attempts “to mask the grave threat that illegal immigration poses to our economy, our national security, and our sovereignty.”

But what if the Library of Congress was actually onto something? What if the term “illegal alien” is actually masking not the gravity of the problem, but the human lives behind it? And how does that “masking” affect our policymaking?


Source: Oh my Disney

The Library of Congress may have been obstructed, but here are three reasons why we should all eliminate “illegal alien” from our vocabularies.

1. Words are reflections of what we think of people and how we treat them.

If you are a writer, teacher, or reader at all, you must know that there is no such thing as “just words.” Language is the closest means of approximating our thoughts. Words enact real change because they change the way we think about things.

Whether we like it or not, our language and the values we ascribe to certain words carry with them a history of power that privileges some and disenfranchises others. The groups that historically had access to literacy (white, male, wealthy, non-disabled) have had the power to influence what words we use, and what registers are “superior” and “inferior”. Even today, the way we use words confers judgments between race, gender, and ability.


“NO DOGS, NEGROES, MEXICANS.” Lonestar Restaurant Association, Dallas, Texas. Printed “Jim Brow” sign, n.d. Black History Collection, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (024.00.00).


As we think about how we want to be inclusive to people who have been historically marginalized in language, we need to be listening to these communities and how they are impacted by words.

Linguists argue that “illegal aliens” is neither a neutral nor accurate term. In defense of the Library of Congress, Rep. Joaquin Castro, a second generation Mexican American, said, “When ugly, belittling names are used to describe groups of people, those terms can make discrimination seem okay.” Worse still, the word illegal, writes Lawrence Downes from the New York Times, is “a code word for racial and ethnic hatred.”

So if, as Rep. Black says, “[s]anitized political speech” and “politically correct speech” are words that take into account the harm that they have on people living in this country, then I’m all for respectful speech.

2. Just because a word is in our legal terminology doesn’t mean it isn’t pejorative.

The English language is ever-evolving, and when a word takes on a pejorative meaning, we should question its place in our legal language. This is especially important since this language directly impacts actions taken toward individuals in this country.

It should be noted that the Library of Congress successfully erased the terms “Negro” and “retard” from its headings without legislative intervention. The state of California, as well as the Associated Press, have already erased some form of “illegal alien” from its terminology.

3. “Illegal alien” casts a vilifying narrative that hinders our understanding of people’s situations and, consequently, hinders solutions.

Besides literally ascribing inhumanity and illegality on a person’s entire existence, “illegal alien” has far too often been used in a narrative that demonizes individuals. This narrative can overpower any hope of actually listening to individuals’ situations.

Make no mistake that immigration is an act of bravery and love. The act of immigrating is frustrating at best, life-threatening at worst. Contrary to political rancor, there is no association between immigration and criminality. It is the hardest decision anyone can make. My parents wouldn’t have left the way of life and language they knew their entire lives if not for me, and I’ve felt the weight of their sacrifice every day growing up here.

Rep. Black ended her statement to the policy change, “Hopefully [this opposition] will give Washington the push needed to stop thinking up the most politically correct ways to describe illegal immigration and start thinking about solutions to address it.”

What kind of “solutions” does Rep. Black envision? Those that generalize an entire people under an unwarranted, dehumanizing mask? What Rep. Black misunderstands is that if we want to create impactful, nuanced solutions that take into account the complex human experiences of immigrants, we’d better start changing our way of thinking. And that starts with our words.

Switching our vocabulary is a meaningful change we can take part in. “Undocumented” and “unauthorized” have appeared increasingly; however, it’s also been noted that immigrants can have many documents, but perhaps not those that ensure citizenship.

I personally prefer “unauthorized” immigrants or residents, which precisely identifies a legal status without the pejorative connotation. What do you think? In what ways are you more mindful of your vocabulary and its social impact? Share in the comments!

One thought on “Words matter. So let’s talk about “illegal alien.”

  1. Pingback: Review: Something in Between by Melissa de la Cruz | Intrepid YA

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