Texas Rep. Joaquin Castro (D), chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and twin brother to former housing secretary and 2020 hopeful Julián Castro, introduced legislation Tuesday that would remove derogatory terms for immigrants from the federal government’s lexicon.
The Correcting Alienating Names in Government Act, or CHANGE Act, would eliminate the words “alien” and “illegal alien” from the Immigration and Nationality Act — the nation’s governing federal immigration law — and other government texts. The terms “foreign national” and “undocumented foreign national” would be used respectively in their place.
“Words matter,” Castro said in a statement. “It’s vital that we respect the dignity of immigrants fleeing violence and prosecution in our language. The words ‘alien’ and ‘illegal alien’ work to demonize and dehumanize the migrant community. They should have no place in our government’s description of human beings.”
“Immigrants come to our borders in good faith and work hard for the opportunity to achieve a better life for themselves and their family,” he added. “Eliminating this language from government expression puts us one step closer to preserving their dignity and ensuring their safety.”
Immigration activists have long criticized the government’s use of the word “alien” to refer to immigrants arriving in the United States seeking a better life.
“The label ‘alien’ is nothing but alienating,” undocumented activist and author Jose Antonio Vargas wrote in the Los Angeles Times in 2015, after the California state government passed a law striking the term from its labor code. “And when coupled with ‘illegal,’ it’s especially toxic. The words seep into the psyche, sometimes to the point of paralysis. They’re dehumanizing.”
This dehumanizing language is not limited to the federal government and its laws; it is everywhere. Mexican-American journalist Maria Hinojosa has advised members of the press against using words like “illegal immigrant” or its plural “illegals” to describe undocumented immigrants. To her, not only is it dehumanizing, it’s also grammatically incorrect.
“No such thing as an illegal human being,” Hinojosa wrote on Twitter earlier this year after CNN’s Chris Cuomo used the term on air. “So, for example, no such thing as illegal driver, illegal bike rider, illegal worker, illegal immigrant. The bike rider may have committed a crime, but he is not illegal. Illegal is an action.”
The Associated Press in 2013 updated its stylebook to no longer sanction the use of the term “illegal immigrant” to describe someone living in the United States without papers.
Castro’s bill comes as the Trump administration is threatening targeted raids of undocumented communities and dismantling U.S. asylum law. On Monday, an interim final rule was published that would make it all but impossible for any migrant not from Mexico or Canada to apply for asylum.