United States Citizenship and Immigration Services officials are planning to change all references of the term "foreign national" to "alien" in the agency’s policy manual, according to a Department of Homeland Security official with knowledge of the plans — a move that will upset immigration advocates who have long said the word is offensive and unnecessary.
While the term "alien" is found within US Code and is regularly referenced in the immigration system and in court rulings, the word has, in recent years, been wiped from the California Labor Code and the Library of Congress after advocacy efforts.
USCIS, however, is looking to proactively insert 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 those who are not US citizens. The policy manual posted online features more than 800 references to the term "foreign national" and already features more than 100 references to aliens.
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.'"
The agency has long been known as focused on providing services to immigrants, evaluating visa, work authorization, and naturalization applications. Under the Trump administration, it has made a restrictive turn, focusing more on enforcement, former officials say. In 2018, the agency removed the phrase “a nation of immigrants” from its mission statement.
“Like the decision to remove the phrase ‘nation of immigrants’ from USCIS’s motto, this is yet another step in the administration’s effort to make our legal immigration system unfriendly and inaccessible,” said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, a policy analyst at the American Immigration Council. “At a time when USCIS faces historic and still-growing backlogs, it’s disturbing that the agency is using its limited resources to carry out what appears to be an anti-immigrant messaging campaign.”
The planned work comes as USCIS deals with crushing backlogs of immigration benefits cases. Average case processing times have jumped 46% from the 2016 fiscal year to the 2018 fiscal year. The average processing time has gone up from just over six months to more than nine months in that same time period, according to data compiled by the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
Ur Jaddou, the former chief counsel for USCIS, said the effort to replace the words will be time-consuming.
“Lawyers should certainly review it to make sure it is accurate. That will take time and resources,” she said.
Since he began as acting director, Ken Cuccinelli has pushed policies that cut back the time immigrants have to consult with attorneys before their initial asylum interviews and implored asylum officers to be stricter in interviews.
He has maintained an active Twitter feed where he has attacked the asylum officers’ union for criticizing a policy that forces immigrants to remain in Mexico, advertised his TV appearances, and repeatedly rebuked local jurisdictions for policies that limit their cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In recent weeks, he requested the ability to publicize the personal information of refugees and asylees who were accused of crimes.
As a Virginia lawmaker in 2008, Cuccinelli sponsored a resolution calling for a rewrite of the Constitution to deny citizenship to Americans who were born to immigrants who crossed the border without authorization.
“This sounds like something utterly unnecessary and potentially offensive, and the only silver lining is maybe this waste of time and resources will slow down more substantive adverse policies that they no doubt have in store as well,” said Doug Rand, a former immigration official under the Obama administration.
Jaddou said the push to the term "alien" was unfortunate.
“Taking the time to change it back — when I haven’t heard that the use of the less offensive term has created issues — makes me wonder about the actual motive to return to a term that many find offensive,” she said.