History & Now, News & Events

Biden’s historic change to “alien” language for immigrants

A step in the right direction.

words by: Natasha Marsh
Apr 28, 2021

When my family moved from Cape Town, South Africa to Southern California in 1990, it took years for us to go from “illegal alien” to citizens. I still remember the day my parents passed their citizenship test, my mother in her thick South African accent was blasting and yelling the lyrics to, “God Bless The U.S.A.” by Lee Greenwood. At the time, I thought it was funny and then annoying because she overplayed it. Only recently, I found out what that moment meant to her. Because of their heavy accents, different use of words and appearance, no one understood my parents when they first got to America. Side note: many people still don’t. They were instantly branded as aliens and stuck out like a sore thumb.


Unfortunately, we are not the only family that has experienced this. The majority of immigrants I know take offense to the language used to describe their citizenship, or lack their off. They have countless stories of how difficult their transition was to American culture and the discrimination that they faced. Which is why the recent announcement by the Biden administration struct a chord with me.


What happened?

On April 19, the Biden administration ordered U.S. immigration enforcement agencies to stop describing immigrants as “alien,” “illegal alien,” and “assimilation.” Instead he called for words like “noncitizen or migrant,” “undocumented,” and “integration.”


Why it’s important

It is incredible to know that we now have a President who understands how dehumanizing language can be to oppressed communities. The change also signals to law enforcement agencies that endorsed Trump’s presidency, that Biden is serious and will not let up on his promises to the nation. ICE and CBP (Customs and Border Protection) have agreed to use more inclusive language with the people they interact with daily.


Troy Miller, CBP’s top official, stated in a recent release:

“As the nation’s premier law enforcement agency, we set a tone and example for our country and partners across the world. 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 our custody.”


Of course there were people who didn’t see a need to change this offensive language. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) tweeted:

“President Biden is more concerned about Border Patrol’s vocabulary than he is about solving the border crisis. These backwards priorities are only making the situation worse.” While Senator Tom Cotton tweeted: This kind of weakness and obsession with political correctness is why we’re having a crisis on the border in the first place.”


What’s next?

There will always be people in favor and people against matters like this but we are happy that changes in language are immediately in effect. After all, correcting how we describe immigrants is the first step. The second of course is actual policies on the treatment of immigrants. To celebrate this win, hit up our Joe Biden playlist.


Photo via Doug Mills/The New York Times