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Biden seeks to replace 'alien' with less 'dehumanizing term' in immigration laws

"This change might seem symbolic, but it’s an important step to restore humanity after years of demonization," Rep. Joaquín Castro, D-Texas, said.
Immigration Activist Protests Attorney General Sessions Visit To Los Angeles
Immigration advocates have long criticized the term "alien" as dehumanizing. Mario Tama / Getty Images file

In a sweeping immigration reform bill, President Joe Biden proposed removing the term "alien" from U.S. immigration laws and replacing it with the word "noncitizen," marking a stark break from the previous administration which encouraged the use of the term "alien."

The bill, which also seeks to provide an eight-year path to citizenship to recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, individuals with temporary protected status and millions of others living in the United States without legal immigration status, "further recognizes America as a nation of immigrants," according to a summary of the legislation released by the new administration.

Ana Maria Archila, co-executive director of the advocacy group Center for Popular Democracy, said in a statement she applauded "many aspects of the proposed legislation, including: the pathway to citizenship," as well as "the elimination of the dehumanizing term 'alien' from the law."

Rep. Joaquín Castro, D-Texas, introduced a similar proposal back in 2015 to remove the phrase "illegal alien" from federal laws and replace it with undocumented "foreign national." The bill would also have ensured that no executive branch agency uses “alien” or “illegal alien” in signage or literature.

“The term 'alien' is used as a dehumanizing slur, and should be removed from the language in our statutes. This change might seem symbolic, but it’s an important step to restore humanity after years of demonization," Castro said in a statement to NBC News.

Many officials have justified the use of the term "alien" by pointing to its prevalence in the U.S. Code, which defines it as "any person not a citizen or national of the United States." Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions constantly used the phrase "illegal alien" to refer to undocumented immigrants. Under Sessions' leadership, the Department of Justice instructed prosecutors to adopt the phrase “an illegal alien" instead of "undocumented," CNN reported in 2018.

President Donald Trump also invoked the phrase countless times during his term. Last week, during one of his last speeches before leaving the White House, he used "alien" at least five times while visiting the U.S.-Mexico border.

New York City and states such as California and Colorado have already taken steps to eliminate the term's use at the local levels.

California removed the word "alien" from its labor code in 2015. Two Colorado state legislators introduced legislation last year to replace "illegal alien" with "undocumented immigrant" as it pertains to public contracts for services. However, the bill never made it to the state Senate floor for a vote.

New York City lawmakers banned the use of the terms "alien" and "illegal" to refer to undocumented immigrants in local laws, rules and documents, NBC New York reported last year.

People in New York City can also face up to $250,000 in fines if they use the terms “illegal alien" or "illegals" with "intent to demean, humiliate or harass a person" after the city's Commission on Human Rights issued a legal enforcement guidance in 2019 on discrimination on the basis of immigration status and national origin.

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