'Words we use matter': Biden administration chucks 'illegal alien' for 'noncitizen'

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Suzanne Gamboa
·3 min read
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

The Biden administration, in a public departure from previous immigration policy, has declared that words such as "alien" and "illegal alien" are out and "noncitizen" and "integration" are in.

The administration has asked the heads of Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, to update their terminology "in response to the vision set by the administration."

"We enforce our nation's laws while also maintaining the dignity of every individual with whom we interact. The words we use matter and will serve to further confer that dignity to those in custody," says a memo to the agencies' leaders dated Monday.

The memo described the new words as “the preferred terminology” and “inclusive language.”

The changes, which are considered guidance, will apply to agency outreach, internal documents and communications with stakeholders, partners and the general public.

CBP and ICE leaders are responsible for implementing the vocabulary update.

The memo said that the agencies "set a tone and example" for the country and its world partners and that their communication and conduct must reflect professionalism.

Other wording changes ordered include dropping "unaccompanied alien children" for "noncitizen unaccompanied children" and "assimilation" for integration or civic integration.

The word "alienage" would change to "non-citizenship," and "immigrant assimilation" would change to "immigrant integration." There are options for "undocumented alien" and "illegal alien": "undocumented noncitizen," "undocumented individual" and "migrant."

Dangerous language that "dehumanizes"

The changes were hailed by Democrats and advocates who have long slammed the language as offensive.

Rep. Nanette Barragán, D-Calif., said the language changes would also help change public perception.

"These changes are a much-needed shift away from the negative rhetoric weaponized by the previous administration, and a small change that reveals how humanity can be reflected in our immigration policies," said Barragán, a member of the Homeland Security Committee.

The changes were first reported by The Washington Post.

President Joe Biden had signaled the potential changes in the immigration bill he sent to Congress, the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, on the day he was sworn in as president, Jan. 20.

The bill called for changing “alien” to “noncitizen” in immigration laws, which the administration said was to recognize the country as a nation of immigrants.

The White House has touted Biden’s immigration proposal as an effort to “restore humanity and American values” to the country's immigration laws and policies.

Immigration advocacy groups and immigrants themselves have long pushed for changes in the immigration lexicon, mostly the descriptions of people as “illegals” or as “illegal aliens.”

The terms have been seen as dehumanizing and as hate language by advocates, while groups that want to restrict immigration have clung to the words.

There have been other attempts to drop the language.

In 2015, Rep. Joaquín Castro, D-Texas, a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, introduced legislation to strike the words "alien" and "illegal alien" from federal law, as well as from federal signs and literature. Castro has reintroduced the bill, known as the CHANGE Act, this session.

"Language that dehumanizes people as somehow less than human is not only wrong, but also dangerous," Castro said Monday in an emailed statement.

He recalled the massacre in El Paso, Texas, in which a gunman drove nearly 700 miles from Dallas and opened fire at a Walmart. Twenty-three people died, and dozens more were injured. In a statement that police have said was posted by the gunman, the author decried what he described as "the Hispanic invasion of Texas," words that had been used by former President Donald Trump and Texas leaders.

"I commend the Biden administration for updating its communication practices to ensure our words reflect our values, which I also proposed in my CHANGE Act legislation. Congress needs to take immediate action to make these changes permanent," Castro said.

In 2013, The Associated Press changed the AP Stylebook to do away with use of "illegal immigrant" or "illegal alien," except in quotations.

Follow NBC Latino on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.