The use of the word “illegal” to describe non-citizens who are present in the United States without authorization is finally beginning to die a much-deserved death, at least in the mainstream press, reads a piece in today’s Salon.com ” The announcement by the Associated Press on April 2, 2013, that it would no longer use the word “illegal” to describe a person, only a status or an action, was soon followed by a number of other major newspapers, including the New York Times — which announced on April 23, 2013, that while it would not ban use of the term “illegal immigrant,” it would encourage editors and reporters to consider alternatives — the Los Angeles Times and the Denver Post. Other news organizations, including the Miami Herald, had long since replaced the term “illegal immigrant” with “undocumented immigrant.” (Of course, even the word “undocumented” is imprecise. Non-citizens present in the United States without lawful immigration status possess all manner of documents — just not the right ones.)
“Despite this trend, the term “alien” remains not only in popular use, but also in the federal statute, the Immigration and Nationality Act, that regulates immigration to the United States. The text of the recently introduced comprehensive immigration reform bill authored by a bipartisan “Gang of Eight” U.S. senators does nothing to upset this long-standing practice. Like the Japanese word “gaijin,” the word “alien” serves to exclude those upon whom it is bestowed. Some might argue that the fact that the word is embedded in our very law would seem to belie any suggestion of stigma associated with the word. After all, Black’s Law Dictionary defines “alien” rather dispassionately as “[a] person who resides within the borders of a country but is not a citizen or subject of that country.” So what if the “regular”dictionary also says that “alien” means “strange” or “repugnant” or “in science fiction, a being in or from outer space and not native to the Earth; extraterrestrial”? That has nothing to do with immigration, or how we treat immigrants, does it?