Words matter. Take as an example the final US Supreme Court oral argument Jeffrey Wall made as acting US solicitor general during the Trump administration.
Wall, a veteran appellate litigator with a long career in the public and private sectors, argued in November that Trump could exclude noncitizens from the census count despite the Constitution’s directive that the count include “the whole number of persons” in each state. And the tone of his argument matched its misguided substance.
“This case should be over,” Wall argued, because the state of New York failed to show that “illegal aliens would be chilled from participating in the enumeration.”
The term “illegal aliens” was jarring enough to hear — even if remotely via telephonic argument — uttered before the highest court in the nation.
Wall would use the term 20 more times that day. His heavy use of it in open court and in his written brief caused several justices, in quoting back his argument in their questions, to repeat it. Others, apparently aware of its painful history of dehumanizing the individuals tagged with it, opted for other phraseology, as when Justice Brett Kavanaugh said “noncitizens living unlawfully in the country.”
But Wall’s word choice was no accident. In 2018, when Jeff Sessions still helmed the Justice Department, US attorneys and others within the department were ordered to stop using “undocumented immigrant” or other phrases, and to use only “illegal alien,” noting that the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 and other relevant federal statutes use that language.
Now that is beginning to change. The Biden administration is directing officials at the Department of Homeland and other agencies to use “more inclusive language” in “internal documents and in overall communication with stakeholders, partners, and the general public.” Those within the agency will be asked to use terms like “noncitizen” instead.
Biden’s immigration bill, which he is rolling out this week and which is expected to include an eight-year path to citizenship for millions of noncitizens presently in the country, will also include a directive to replace the term “alien” with “noncitizen” in federal immigration laws.
While this will not immediately eradicate the vile term from the federal government, the move serves as a reminder that words can be weaponized to deliver blunt force to their intended targets.
I learned this lesson firsthand at 10 years old. A woman in a passing car hurled a racial slur at me as I walked across a busy suburban Detroit intersection, apparently not quickly enough to satisfy her. I clearly recall the stinging sensation that word left in my belly. Even though I was a child who didn’t yet fully understand how that word had been used for hundreds of years to terrorize Black Americans, I understood enough to know that, just as with Sessions’ directive, cruelty was the point.
Sessions himself has a long history of using incendiary language to refer to noncitizens, including his repeated claims that sanctuary cities harbor “criminal aliens.”
Yes, as some defenders of the previous policy point out, the word “aliens” appears in statutory text. But until five short years ago, words like “Negro” and “Oriental” also could be found in federal law, and somehow lawyers and lawmakers managed to do their jobs for decades without uttering them.
The grammatical argument for canceling “illegal alien” is just as strong as the moral one. No human being can be illegal; people can break laws, but that doesn’t make their very existence criminal.
California removed the word “alien” from its labor law, and other states and municipalities across the country have passed legislation or made other proposals to do the same. Congress should act too.
It won’t be easy politically. A 2015 bill sponsored by Democratic Representative Joaquin Castro of Texas to take the word “alien” out of federal government language went nowhere, and even the Library of Congress was forced to backtrack from its decision to replace the term with less derogatory terms like “noncitizens” or “unauthorized immigration” after Republican pushback.
But right is right. The term itself had fallen out of favor until Trump resurrected it in his own nasty rhetoric. Now it deserves its place in the same historical dustbin as other pejoratives we’ve left behind.
Kimberly Atkins Stohr is a columnist for the Globe. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @KimberlyEAtkins.