Rep. Joaquín Castro: Stop Using the Word 'Alien' in Federal Law, Signs

by Suzanne Gamboa /  / Updated 
Image: Maria Cruz Ramirez,
Maria Cruz Ramirez, one of several undocumented Latinos traveling across the country on the Undocubus, protests during a briefing on the civil rights effects of state immigration law held by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in Birmingham, Alabama on August 17, 2012. Macintosh / Bob Miller for NBC News

WASHINGTON, DC -- U.S. Rep. Joaquín Castro wants the federal government to drop the word "alien" from its laws and other official documents.

Castro, a Texas Democrat, has introduced a bill to strike the word and use the term “foreign national” in federal law. The proposed bill, which Castro dubbed the CHANGE Act, also would remove "illegal alien" from federal law and replace it with undocumented foreign national. In addition, the bill would make sure no executive branch agency use “alien” or “illegal alien” in signage or literature.

“America is a nation of immigrants, yet our federal government continues to use terms that dehumanize and ostracize those in our society who happen to have been born elsewhere,” Castro said.

Castro told NBC News that removing the term “shows respect to our shared heritage and to the hundreds of millions of descendants of immigrants who call America home.”

He pointed out that alien is used not only to describe people who arrived or stayed in the country illegally, but also those who have come to the country with legal permission.

According to Castro, the language dates to the Naturalization Act of 1790. While that may have been an acceptable term then, the word has come to take on different meaning now. "When someone says aliens, we think of Martians or space aliens, not human beings."

He said precedent exists for changing words used by the federal government, for instance the government has removed use of the word “lunatic” and “mentally retarded” from statutes.

“Words matter, particularly in the context of an issue as contentious as immigration,” Castro said. He said ending use of the term could bring civility at a time when vitriol surrounds national discussions of immigration reform and potential progress in fixing the nation’s immigration system.

Castro's proposal comes as language used in reference to immigrants - terms such as "anchor babies" and descriptions of immigrants as rapists - on the 2016 campaign trail has been under scrutiny.

GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump has dismissed criticism of his language (it was raised about how he discusses women), saying he and the country don't have time for "political correctness." He uses the term alien throughout his immigration policy proposal released as part of his campaign. In a recent interview with NBC News, he said he could be more politically correct, but that it takes time.

Media and other parts of society dropped use of the word alien and illegal alien long ago, said Castro.

"In this case, government has not caught up with the rest of society," Castro said.

The term, however, is used often in conservative media. The Associated Press Stylebook also advises against the use of the word "undocumented."

The League of United Latin American Citizens and the National Immigration Forum are backing Castro’s proposed legislation.

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