As a part of the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, President Biden proposes a change in immigration terminology, hoping to replace the term “alien” with “noncitizen.”
By Evan Rodrigues
Following the Trump administration, President Biden is pushing for changes in immigration policies. On January 20th, 2021, President Biden’s first day in office, the proposed U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 was shared with the public.
The whitehouse.gov fact sheet for the bill reads:
“The legislation modernizes our immigration system, and prioritizes keeping families together, growing our economy, responsibly managing the border with smart investments, addressing the root causes of migration from Central America, and ensuring that the United States remains a refuge for those fleeing persecution.”
The fact sheet goes on, and within the first section, describes a proposed change in language. This change would replace the current legal term “alien” with “noncitizen”. The official definition of “alien”, according to section 8 of the U.S. Code is “any person not a citizen or national of the United States” (U.S. Code, Section 8, 1101 a.3). According to the White House fact sheet, on top of other changes proposed, this change “further recognizes America as a nation of immigrants.”
The problematic nature of the term “alien” has to do with the imagery evoked by the word. Jose Antonio Vargas from Define American, an organization with the goal of eliminating and reimagining harmful rhetoric in the media, is quoted in a recent CNN article on the topic:
"How we describe people really sticks. It affects how we treat [immigrants]. How we talk about immigrants shapes the policies. It frames what are the issues really at stake here. It acknowledges that we're talking about human beings and families." The undeniable fact that immigrants are humans is challenged, for Jose, by rhetoric that brings to mind images of non-human beings.
In the same article, Vargas goes on, saying “If you call them 'alien,' of course you're going to put them in jail, of course you're going to lock them up, of course you're not going to care that you're separating little kids from their parents.” Seeing the consequences of word choice as very real, supporters of this change hope that it will take power away from xenophobic ideologies and practices that have traditionally been supported by dehumanizing rhetoric.
A NBC news story from November 6th, 2020 reads: “Reports of hate crimes against Latinos, including last year's shooting massacre in El Paso, Texas, increased in 2019, while the overall number of reports of hate-motivated killings hit its highest level since data began being collected in the early 1990s”. Reporter Suzanne Gamboa cites the 2019 El Paso massacre.“Most of the victims were Latinos,” reports Gamboa, “Authorities have said the gunman was targeting Hispanics when he drove hundreds of miles to El Paso and shot multiple people at a Walmart.”
The article goes on to connect word choice to acts of violence, noting “authorities said that before the attack, the gunman had posted a hate-filled racist statement decrying the ‘invasion’ of Mexican immigrants in the United States.”
Before the suspension of his account earlier this year, Donald Trump made frequent use of the social media platform twitter. A 2018 tweet from @realDonaldTrump reads:
“We cannot allow all of these people to invade our Country. When somebody comes in, we must immediately, with no Judges or Court Cases, bring them back from where they came.” The use of words like “invasion”, accompanied with the dehumanizing nature of the word “alien”, creates a narrative that sets the stage for individuals to respond and act from a place of hate or fear.
It seems, with the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, Biden hopes to shift the narrative and work towards restoring “humanity and American values to our immigration system” (Citizenship Act of 2021 Fact Sheet, whitehouse.gov).
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Melanie Moyer '22,