Editor’s Note: Ed Morales (@SpanglishKid) is a journalist and lecturer at Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race and the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. He’s the author of the book “Fantasy Island: Colonialism, Exploitation and the Betrayal of Puerto Rico.” The views expressed are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Last month, an email obtained by Axios revealed that Joe Biden’s administration is encouraging the elimination of the use of the term “alien” or “illegal alien” in favor of “undocumented individual” or “undocumented noncitizen” in all official documents, outreach efforts and other communications, to describe those in the US who are not citizens. It’s a significant development that is welcomed by advocates of the undocumented, since the long-standing use of “alien” is a not-so-subtle dog whistle that has been effectively used to dehumanize not only the undocumented, but actual American citizens.
And it’s also a reflection of the difficult task the Biden administration faces: appearing to be serious on protecting the border while at the same time restoring some humanity to immigration enforcement policy, a challenge Barack Obama’s administration struggled with. Dispensing with the use of the terms “alien” and “illegal” could go a long way to lessening harm to those who are judged as “not American” because of their racial appearance.
But there is little question that it will be an uphill battle in this America.
While some triumphant Democrats argue that this signals a reversal of the relentless demonization of Mexican and Central American immigrants that Donald Trump so effectively channeled and advanced, that would be wishful thinking: the hostile stance assumed by the former president was not new in this country. The roots of his “Build the Wall” rhetoric and constituency can be traced back to recent events that preceded his tenure – measures like California’s Proposition 187 in 1994, for example, which made undocumented immigrants (“illegal aliens” in the language of the ballot measure) ineligible for public benefits.
In Arizona, propositions 100, 102 and 300, adopted in 2006, had varying effects: prohibiting “alien” bias in some cases, preventing them from filing civil suits, and denying them access to higher education, respectively. The state’s SB 1070 (the “papers please law”), passed in 2010, criminalized being an undocumented noncitizen and gave the green light to police officers to ask for proof of legal status for anyone they believed was in the country illegally. And other statutes, like the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act passed in 1996, and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security following 9/11, hardened immigration laws and their enforcement.
The term alien, as applied to migrants and others has a long history that dates back to English common law. Derived from the Latin alienus, meaning “belonging to another,” alien was used in England to describe someone “born outside the kings’ dominion’s,” an apparently neutral usage. But the use of the word in the US has evolved over time in the US to reflect different stages of the nation’s history – almost always reflecting racist discrimination. In the fledgling United States, the 1790 Naturalization Act limited naturalization to an “alien” who is a “free white person.”
Some historians point out that slaves brought to the US from outside the country after the international slave trade was banned in 1808 were the first “illegal immigrants.” The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first legal restriction of immigration that targeted nonwhites, in this case Asians who were scapegoated during a period of economic crisis. Historian Mae Ngai argues in her book Impossible Subjects that the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 was “the nation’s first comprehensive restriction law,” establishing “for the first-time numerical limits on immigration and a global racial and national hierarchy that favored some immigrants over others.”
By the mid-20th century, in popular culture, the caricature “alien” soared to new heights as part of the science-fiction genre, where the invocation of a cold, mysterious nonhuman “other” served as a metaphor for fear of menacing outsiders while the country was in the grips of 50s and 60s Cold War paranoia. While occasionally films like Steven Spielberg’s ET and Close Encounters of the Third Kind attempted to dispel the characterization, (aliens, in those films, were the good guys; officials were the bad guys) the aliens remained decidedly not human. It was Ridley Scott’s Alien series that maintained the metaphor, representing aliens as stomach-exploding reptilian slime-things in deep space, where no one could hear you scream. With the menacing “alien” firmly implanted in America’s subconscious, it’s not that much of a stretch to the idea of an “illegal alien” threatening its neighborhoods.
Anti-immigrant sentiment began to grow after Mexican immigrants went from the fourth largest to the largest immigrant group in the US between 1970 and 1980, according to US Census Bureau data. “Illegal alien” took on a particularly dangerous, derisive meaning (one that became a building block in our present-day explosion of racial intolerance). The terrorist attacks in September 2001 placed many brown people in the US, Latinos among them, under suspicion – about their citizenship status, their loyalty to the nation, and even their place in the country. This reinforced the way many Latinos in America had effectively become “alien citizens,” which Ngai describes as “an American citizen by virtue of her birth in the United States but whose citizenship is suspect, if not denied.”
The elimination of the US Immigration and Naturalization Service in 2003, which previously operated under the Department of Justice, and its replacement with the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (or “ICE”) agency, operating within the newly created Department of Homeland Security, had effects like conflating immigration offenses with anti-terrorism and crime control, according to a Boston College legal journal. According to “The Criminalization of Immigration,” a 2015 report by the American Immigration Council (AIC) “the government has been redefining what it means to be a ‘criminal alien,’ using increasingly stringent definitions of ‘criminality that do not apply to US citizens.’”
A year before Trump was elected, AIC asserted that deportation efforts, stepped up during the Obama administration, cast “a widening dragnet over the nation’s foreign-born population in search of anyone who might be deportable.” Latinos had come under suspicion because of the way DHS lumped together enforcement against potential terrorists with that against those who violated immigration laws. Many in the Republican Party, such as former Texas Gov. Rick Perry in 2014, began to use rhetoric that implied terrorists were slipping into the US through the border with Mexico. “Criminal aliens,” he called them.
It’s clear that the use of stereotyping phrases like “illegal alien” does more harm than just hurt feelings. And we’ve seen it played out on the media. The recently cancelled Fox News’ Lou Dobbs, for instance, as far back as 2005, falsely claimed that immigrants crossing the border were spreading leprosy. And last month, when talking about the Covid-19 vaccine rollout in her state, Arizona Rep. Debbie Lesko said: “I worked with people that are Hispanic. I mean they’re very good workers… We’re compassionate people, but for goodness sakes, we have to take care of American citizens, or people that are here legally, first.” Statements like these continue to smear Latinos as less than deserving. (Lesko later said that her remarks could be misinterpreted and that she meant that senior citizens should receive the vaccine before “illegal immigrants.”)
Even Latino US citizens face harm because of implicit bias in the criminal justice system that consistently leads to disproportionate arrest and sentencing. From Puerto Ricans – American citizens – born on their native island or in the 50 states to 5th generation Mexican American citizens to 3rd generation Salvadoran American citizens and on and on, many Americans are harmed by negative stereotypes when caught up in the system; some are even profiled by ICE as immigration law violators.
That the Biden administration has shown concern about this is admirable – the very intention of naming an immigrant from Cuba, Alejandro Mayorkas, as Secretary of Homeland Security, the first Latino at the helm of the agency, seems proof of that. While many Cubans in the first wave of exiles had an easier path to citizenship, and most are still favored by the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, the Krome Detention Center in Miami, a major ICE facility, was originally used to detain Cubans who came to the US in the 1980 Mariel Boatlift. Many of them were perceived as less desirable. And Obama ended the policy that allowed Cubans who arrived without a visa a direct path to permanent residency just before leaving office in 2017. More recently, Cubans have faced increased deportations and many who decided to enter through Mexico are still trapped waiting at the border.
Biden’s newly announced US Citizenship Act of 2021 creates an eight-year path to citizenship and a new 5-year temporary status, as well as a quicker path for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients, known as Dreamers, for Temporary Protected Status immigrants, and a path to green-card status for farm workers is also promising. But a recently-released memo on interim guidance for civil immigration enforcement and removal priorities has raised concerns from immigration advocates. The document apparently intended to reduce immigration arrests and deportations by requiring higher levels of approval from senior managers. The American Civil Liberties Union issued a statement calling the memo a “disappointing step backward,” because, they say, the Biden administration “has chosen to continue giving ICE officers significant discretion to conduct operations that harm our communities and tear families apart.”
The Arizona-based political organizing group Mijente called it “a step in the right direction,” but one that “excludes too many members of our communities… We have a long way to go.”
Since taking office, the Biden administration has halted construction on the border wall and moved to bring back immigrants who were forced to “remain in Mexico,” under a Trump administration policy. Yet thousands of unaccompanied migrant children continue being detained in government shelters. While in theory the Biden approach has a more humane vision, it needs to make sure its priorities and its actions match its language of compassion.