Department of Homeland Security officials have been directed to stop using words such as “alien” and “illegal alien” from communications with the public or within the agency when referring to people who aren’t US citizens in an effort by the Biden administration to recast immigration terminology.
The planned wording change, recounted in a memo obtained by BuzzFeed News, is the latest flashpoint in a yearslong debate over the way immigrants are described in federal laws and by the agencies that oversee immigration. Axios earlier Tuesday reported on an email to staff about the memo.
To immigrants and their advocates, it 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.
To that end, Tracy Renaud, the acting leader of US Citizenship and Immigration Services, has issued a memo that instructs the agency’s leadership to make the following changes: no longer referring to people as “illegal alien,” “alien,” or “undocumented alien” in internal and external communications, but to instead use the terms “noncitizen,” “undocumented noncitizen,” or “undocumented individual.” In addition, USCIS is seeking to no longer use “assimilation,” but instead to use “integration,” as well as to refer to those who apply for benefits like green cards as “customers.”
The wording changes do not impact forms or operational documents where using the previous terminology is most appropriate, but the new terminology will be seen throughout communications the agency has internally and with the public. Renaud, a career agency official, wrote that she leaves it up to those within the agency in determining “how best to implement” the wording change guidance.
A USCIS spokesperson said the move came after guidance from the Biden administration on how the federal government should use language on the topic of immigration.
"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," Joe Sowers, USCIS spokesperson, said in a statement.
The shift is already noticeable in public statements and memorandums 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” in comments to reporters.
The interagency effort is also another signal that as the Biden administration urges Congress to take action — such as a reported immigration bill would strike the word “alien” from immigration laws — it will also work through federal agencies to implement more immediate changes as well.
César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, a University of Denver law professor, said that the phrasing changes would be significant.
“Removing ‘alien’... won’t stop ICE from deporting anyone or make life easier for people who aren’t US citizens. Still, it is important to remove the word ‘alien,’” he said, “because it’s offensive to describe people using the same word that conjures images of two-headed Martian invaders.”
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 Biden would cut the word altogether from the Immigration and Nationality Act.
Those attempts stand in contrast to the Trump administration, which doubled down on the usage of the word “alien.” In 2019, USCIS officials changed all references of the term "foreign national" to "alien" in the agency’s policy manual, and CNN reported that the Department of Justice had instructed US attorneys to use “illegal alien” instead of “undocumented immigrants” in 2018.
Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia, a professor at Penn State Law, said she views changing the word “alien” to “undocumented” has the potential to change how the country discusses immigrants, and it could promote inclusion and equity during a time in which immigration has become a divisive issue.
While British citizens were some of the first to be referred to as aliens by the US legal system, the term has been commonly connected to immigrants of color, dating back to laws barring Chinese immigration and continuing all the way through parts of the 1900s, according to Kevin Johnson, dean of the School of Law at the University of California, Davis.
“Before 1952, for example, the law barred most nonwhite immigrants from naturalizing to become citizens, thereby forever relegating noncitizens of color to alien status and effectively defining them as permanent outsiders in U.S. society,” he wrote in a 1997 essay tracking the history of the word. “In effect, the term alien serves to dehumanize persons. We have few, if any, legal obligations to alien outsiders to the community, though we have obligations to persons. Persons have rights while aliens do not.”
Former Trump administration official Robert Law, who headed up policy at USCIS, slammed the idea of any changes in a recent blog post.
“Immigration is a complex issue, but the statutory definition of ‘alien’ is as benign as any word in our laws could possibly be,” he wrote in the blog. “The term ‘alien’ is precise, accurate, and in no way offensive. To suggest otherwise is to suspend reality and is not a serious or reasonable position.”
For Raymond Partolan, a 27-year-old green card holder from Atlanta, the change is a long time coming.
“When we call people aliens we are depriving them of their sense of humanity. Whenever someone uses the word alien it conjures up images of beings that are out of this world,” he said.
Now a paralegal, Partolan came to the US when he was 1 year old and obtained protection from deportation later on in life as a DACA recipient.
“I would call myself a Filipino American — I want to spend the rest of my life in the US, and when the laws classify me as an alien, I see that as an attempt to deprive me of my desire to call this place home,” he said. “I think words matter.”