"No Human Being is Illegal" poster. Photo: Vallarie Enriquez/Getty Images
"No Human Being is Illegal" poster. Photo: Vallarie Enriquez/Getty Images

Words matter when it comes to immigration, but there still needs to be major policy change

The Biden admin is changing the terminology around immigration for good, but has yet to do so for its concrete policies.


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President Biden’s administration has directed U.S. immigration agencies to stop using outdated and demeaning terms such as “illegal alien” when referring to undocumented migrants.

On Monday, April 19, top officials at Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) were given specific instructions via memos that their agencies will no longer be using the terms “alien,” nor “illegal.” 

Instead, they are advised to use more proper terminology, replacing these antiquated and derogatory terms with more appropriate ones like “noncitizen or migrant,” and “undocumented.” 

The term “assimilation” will also be replaced with “integration.” This change is a part of Biden’s ongoing effort to reverse his predecessor’s staunch policies and advance his endeavor to create a more “humane” immigration system. 

Copies of the memos were first obtained and reported on by The Washington Post. U.S. officials told the newspaper that these changes are effective immediately. 

In one memo shared with Insider, the top CBP official, Troy Miller, said that words are significant when referring to immigrants. 

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

Emphasizing the importance of both enforcing the laws and maintaining the dignity of human beings, Miller also said that the language CBP, ICE, the media and all of us use “serve to further confer that dignity to those in our custody.” 

In a second memo, Tae Johnson, the acting director of ICE, promised to support Biden’s plans to humanize U.S. border policy and conserve human rights. 

“In response to the vision set by the administration, ICE will ensure agency communications use the preferred terminology and inclusive language,” Johnson wrote. 

It is common knowledge that Biden has wanted to eliminate these terms. In January, the president published a summary of his proposed immigration bill in which he said he plans to replace the word “alien” with “noncitizen.” 

The U.S. Code defines “alien” as anyone who is “not a citizen or national of the United States,” and a number of Republicans have blasted the change, calling it an example of “extreme political correctness.” 

Sen. Tom Cotton took to Twitter on Monday to dismiss the redesign, writing that we use the term “because they’re here illegally,” claiming that this type of “weakness and obsession” with being politically correct is the reason why there is a border crisis in the first place. 

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the House Minority Leader, also tweeted the same day, echoing identical thoughts. McCarthy insisted that Biden’s intense concern with vocabulary is overshadowing the concern he should have about solving the actual issues at the border.

“These backwards priorities are only making the situation worse,” he wrote. 

The U.S. has long been criticized for human rights violations of migrants, particular concerning the handling of unaccompanied minors

Though the Biden administration has pledged to change the deplorable history and current conditions of this unjust system, true change has yet to take place. 

In fact, many advocates have yet to see any progress. Even before the first 100 days concluded, the administration was responsible for the deportation of hundreds of people.

In March, 33 Vietnamese refugees were deported, despite Biden’s 100 day deportation moratorium. Even worse, the deportations directly violated a 2008 bilateral agreement between the U.S. and Vietnam, which protected immigrants from removal, so long as they arrived in the states before 1995. 

“Vietnamese citizens are not subject to return to Vietnam under this Agreement if they arrived in the United States before July 12, 1995. The U.S. Government and the Vietnamese Government maintain their respective legal positions relative to Vietnamese citizens who departed Vietnam for the United States prior to that date,” it reads.

Several immigrant detention centers remain scattered throughout the states, each with documented cases of medical negligence, sexual and physical abuse, and inappropriate use of solitary confinement. Activists have been working tirelessly to get these centers shut down for good. 

Democrats and immigrant advocates have applauded the new policy. Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García tweeted that “words matter,” and that these new terms mark a “small but important step.” 

The nonpartisan organization, Define American, has been pushing for changes such as these, to humanize conversations about immigration. 

Jose Antonio Vargas, founder of the organization, said that Democrats need to turn words into action and pass legislation that gives legal status to the millions of undocumented immigrants. 

Vargas, an undocumented immigrant from the Philippines and a former journalist, explained that the Trump administration used language as a weapon, and this administration is using language as a “bridge.” 

“[But] a bridge to what exactly? If you’re going to use humanizing language, then how does that lead to policies — specific, tangible, policy changes — that treat immigrants as people?” Vargas said. 


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