Changing ‘Alien’ to ‘Undocumented’ acknowledges immigrants’ humanity

By America Lopez-Santiago
June 12, 2021


“Who’s the Illegal Alien Pilgrim” by Thomas Hawk is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

One word can change how people view a person. When someone hears this, the first thing they think is an extraterrestrial. People don’t think that it refers to someone who is not a naturalized citizen of the country where they are living. For many years people have called immigrants aliens. It was first targeted at Chinese immigrants, and over time it changed from “alien” to “illegal alien.”  

Throughout my life, I had never liked when people referred to other immigrants or me as “illegal aliens.” There had been times when kids my age would “joke” and call me an alien. I would take it as a joke and never told them how it made me feel degraded. I wanted to say to them, “I’m a human being, just like everyone else.”

Trump’s Term

“Donald Trump” by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Former President Donald Trump’s administration frequently used the term “illegal aliens” when discussing immigrants. In 2018, Trump had a meeting with California leaders and called for stronger immigration laws. “We have people coming into the country or trying to come in, we’re stopping a lot of them, but we’re taking people out of the country. You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are,” Trump said. “These aren’t people. These are animals.” Trump and his administration use their words as a weapon against immigrants. 

According to Constitutional law scholar Alexander Bickel, a term like this that dehumanizes people justifies denying rights because it’s easier to deny rights to a nonperson. 

Biden’s Term

Joe Biden, St. Louis, MO Rally MARCH 7 2020.  Photo provided by beemergirl99 on Flickr.

On the day that President Joe Biden was sworn in as president, he signaled the potential changes in the immigration bill he sent to Congress, the U.S. Citizen Act of 2021. The bill will change the word “alien” to “noncitizen” within the immigration laws. The bill will also keep families together, promote immigration and embrace diversity. Biden proposed the bill as an effort to “restore humanity and American values” to the country’s policies and immigration laws. 

Biden’s administration has asked the head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE, and Customs and Border Protection, CBP, to update their terminology. 

As an immigrant, I believe changing the term will allow people to see immigrants as humans and not people who don’t deserve fundamental rights. It may help Congress and the House vote for bills that provide the path to citizenship for immigrants. It might not change how people feel about immigrants, but it is a step in the right direction.

Previous attempt to change the term 

In the past, there have been several times when legislators have attempted to change the language. In 2015, Rep. Joaquín Castro, D-Texas, introduced legislation to strike the word “illegal alien” and “alien” from federal law, federal signs and literature. On Jan. 25, Rep. Castro reintroduced the immigration bill for the new Congress as the CHANGE Act. 

“I commend the Biden administration for updating its communication practices to ensure our words reflect our values, which I also proposed in my CHANGE Act legislation. Congress needs to take immediate action to make these changes permanent,” Castro said.


Some Republicans have slammed Biden’s administration, and they believe that it’s a sign that it is pulling back on immigration enforcement at the southwest border. “We use the term ‘illegal alien’ because they’re here illegally,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said on Twitter. 

I may be here without proper documentation, but that does not make me an alien. It also doesn’t give people the right to call me or anyone else an alien. Changing the term is a step toward people to acknowledge us as humans and understand that we are more than “illegal aliens.”

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America Lopez-Santiago

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