There is literally no such thing as an “illegal alien.” Should intelligent life forms descend upon our planet outside of a universally approved galactic treaty, that truth may change. Until then, no human being can be illegal (only acts can), and none are aliens. Steps such as the state of California this week removing the term “alien” from usage must be taken to align our policies and practices with modern society. Using the term to talk about other human beings is severely antiquated at best, and anti-American at worst.
While lawmakers must act to repair our unjust laws, we as a nation must come together. Our fate is tied to one another, and how we choose to treat each other is ultimately what will define America.
- Ryan Eller
When one refers to an immigrant as an "illegal alien" they are effectively saying that the individual, as opposed to any actions that the individual has taken, is illegal - implying that a person’s mere existence is criminal. No other circumstance in our common nomenclature is a crime considered to render the individual as being “illegal,” as opposed to the individual’s actions. We don’t even refer to the Timothy McVeighs, Jared Loughners, Nidal Malik Hasans, Adam Lanzas, and Dylann Roofs of America as “illegal.” Although the term is used in some statutes and elsewhere in court opinions and some executive orders, U.S. immigration laws do not refer to “illegal immigrants” and federal law provides no overarching explicit definition of the term "illegal alien.”
I’m a Southerner and a son of Appalachia, who regardless of being called “hillbilly” from time to time am impelled to welcome my neighbors. Neighbors including undocumented American Maria del Rosario Duarte - a Georgia grandmother whose children were deported, leaving her as the sole caretaker of her three grandchildren. All grandchildren are legal U.S. citizens, including one boy, now 6, who was born with severe medical conditions. He breathes and eats through tubes and walks with braces. The doctors familiar with Maria’s grandson’s ailments are nearby, and she fears care might not be available if the boys were forced to move if she’s deported. Maria originally fled to the United States to escape her abusive husband, who followed her around the country and continued to assault her. She’s not an alien, she’s the embodiment of American grit and faithful love just like all of us in this nation of immigrants.
The U.S. government's use of “alien” dates back to 1798, when it was used in the Alien and Sedition Acts. At that time in our nation’s history, the Declaration of Independence called Native Americans “merciless Indian savages,” and documents referred to Americans from African nations as “colored, negro, chattel, or other persons.” California was a part of Mexico, and neither the light bulb, automobile, flight, or the telephone had been invented.
Times change, and so should we. In 2009, New York banned the use of the word “oriental” in state documents when referring to people of Asian or Pacific Islander descent. Now, in 2015, California has banned the use of the word “alien.” It’s time our language evolved and the rest of our nation’s government entities and media stop using the terms “illegal” and “alien” when referring to humans.
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That's why we at Define American asked the Associated Press in 2013 to immediately stop referring to our undocumented brothers and sisters as "illegal," and why we continue the #WordsMatter campaign to this day--asking everyone in the media to use more accurate language.
When the words someone uses are just flatly wrong, bluntly racist, and overtly dehumanizing, claiming that “political correctness” is the issue simply serves to absolve inaccuracy, racism, and inhumanity. This isn't about being overly sensitive. It's about creating a society where people aren't defined by societal prejudices.
We are a nation of laws, but not all of our laws have always been just - including when slavery was legal and when women had no right to vote. So, while lawmakers must act to repair our unjust laws, we as a nation must come together. Our fate is tied to one another, and how we choose to treat each other is ultimately what will define America.
Rev. Ryan M. Eller is the Executive Director of Define American, a media and culture nonprofit that uses the power of stories to transcend politics and shift the conversation around immigrants, identity and citizenship in a changing America.