United States Citizenship and Immigration Services officials are planning to remove references to immigrants as “aliens” in the agency’s policy manual more than a year after the term was inserted into the guidance during the Trump administration, according to government documents obtained by BuzzFeed News.
The move to insert the term “alien” and replace all references to “foreign national” came in the fall of 2019, when Ken Cuccinelli was the acting leader of USCIS.
The planned wording change is part of the Biden administration’s efforts to cut down on the use of the term “alien” and alter the way immigrants are described by the federal government. The move also comes just weeks after agency officials directed leadership to no longer use the terminology in agency communications.
The changes, while symbolic, have become the focus of agency leadership for years. Back in 2019, USCIS officials proactively inserted more references to the term into its policy manual, an online collection of its immigration policies, by replacing all references of "foreign national" to "alien" to describe people who are not US citizens.
The policy manual posted online featured more than 800 instances of the term "foreign national" and already had more than 100 references to aliens. The agency underwent a process to change the phrasing in the policy manual, and the term “alien” is currently used more than 1,700 times. Now, officials are looking to replace “alien” with “noncitizen” as much as possible throughout the manual.
Under the Trump administration in 2019, a spokesperson for USCIS defended the change, saying that the agency "proposes to use the legal term in the Immigration and Nationality Act."
"It is important that our agency, which administers our nation's lawful immigration system, align our internal materials with the INA," the spokesperson said in a statement. "Under the INA, the term 'alien' means 'any person not a citizen or national of the United States.'"
On Tuesday, an agency spokesperson directed BuzzFeed News to a February memo signed by acting USCIS director Tracy Renaud that urged agency leaders to cut down on the use of the terminology. “This change is designed to encourage more inclusive language in the agency’s outreach efforts, internal documents and in overall communication with stakeholders, partners, and the general public. The guidance does not affect legal, policy or other operational documents, including forms, where using terms (such as applicant, petitioner, etc.) as defined by the Immigration and Nationality Act would be the most appropriate,” the spokesperson said.
USCIS has long been known for its focus on providing services to immigrants, including evaluating visas, work authorization, and naturalization applications. Under the Trump administration, however, it took a restrictive turn. One DHS official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they could not speak publicly on the matter, told BuzzFeed News the removal of the references to “alien” in the manual would create a less adversarial tone.
To immigrants and their advocates, the replacement of the phrasing represents a shift away from a word that has been described as “dehumanizing” for those hoping to make the US their new home, while others believe it’s an unnecessary move that undercuts federal law. The term "alien" is found within US Code and is regularly referenced in the immigration system and in court rulings to describe everyone who is not a US citizen. In recent years, however, the word has been wiped from the California Labor Code and the Library of Congress after advocacy efforts.
The shift is already noticeable in public statements and memos as well. On Jan. 20, then–acting DHS secretary David Pekoske relied on the term “noncitizen” when describing undocumented individuals who are at risk of arrest by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In comments to the media, ICE officials have shifted from using “illegal alien,” which was commonly used during the Trump administration, to “noncitizen.”
There have been efforts to change the phrasing on a national and local level. In 2015, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law that struck the word “alien” from California legal records, and a Colorado legislator attempted a similar move in 2019. Rep. Joaquin Castro introduced a bill in 2019 to strip the word “alien” on a federal level. Similarly, the immigration bill proposed by President Biden would cut the word altogether from the Immigration and Nationality Act.