Stop calling people "aliens"

Many have finally quit using the word “illegal.” But “alien" persists, and its history is dark and complicated

Published May 27, 2013 8:00PM (EDT)

 (Reuters/David Mcnew)
(Reuters/David Mcnew)

The use of the word “illegal” to describe non-citizens who are present in the United States without authorization is finally beginning to die a much-deserved death, at least in the mainstream press. The announcement by the Associated Press on April 2, 2013, that it would no longer use the word “illegal” to describe a person, only a status or an action, was soon followed by a number of other major newspapers, including the New York Times — which announced on April 23, 2013, that while it would not ban use of the term “illegal immigrant,” it would encourage editors and reporters to consider alternatives — the Los Angeles Times and the Denver Post. Other news organizations, including the Miami Herald, had long since replaced the term “illegal immigrant” with “undocumented immigrant.” (Of course, even the word “undocumented” is imprecise. Non-citizens present in the United States without lawful immigration status possess all manner of documents — just not the right ones.)

Despite this trend, the term “alien” remains not only in popular use, but also in the federal statute, the Immigration and Nationality Act, that regulates immigration to the United States. The text of the recently introduced comprehensive immigration reform bill authored by a bipartisan “Gang of Eight” U.S. senators does nothing to upset this long-standing practice. Like the Japanese word "gaijin," the word “alien” serves to exclude those upon whom it is bestowed. Some might argue that the fact that the word is embedded in our very law would seem to belie any suggestion of stigma associated with the word. After all, Black’s Law Dictionary defines “alien” rather dispassionately as “[a] person who resides within the borders of a country but is not a citizen or subject of that country.” So what if the “regular” dictionary also says that “alien” means “strange” or “repugnant” or “in science fiction, a being in or from outer space and not native to the Earth; extraterrestrial”? That has nothing to do with immigration, or how we treat immigrants, does it?

Actually, it does. There is a well-developed body of scholarship on the racist roots of U.S. immigration laws and how the term “alien” — and, even more perniciously, “illegal alien” — has been used to define and exclude those foreign nationals who are viewed as unwelcome, whether because of race, religion, language, culture, poverty or some combination of the above. There is little doubt that, as professor Kevin R. Johnson, dean of the University of California at Davis School of Law, has put it, “[t]he concept of the alien has … subtle social consequences ... [I]t helps to reinforce and strengthen nativist sentiment toward members of new immigrant groups, which in turn influences U.S. responses to immigration and human rights issues.” And sometimes, the social consequences are not so subtle: witness Arizona’s notorious immigration enforcement law (S.B. 1070), which requires law enforcement officers making lawful stops to check the immigration status of any person reasonably suspected of being an “alien” who is unlawfully present in the United States.

All of this still begs the question: Why “alien”? How did the specific term “alien” — which means not just non-citizen or non-national but, in a certain sense, non-person — become an accepted legal definition, and colloquial description, of the immigrant under U.S. law? Would using a different word change the public’s attitude toward immigrants? And what does outer space have to do with it?

Etymology of Alien as Foreigner

The word “alien” is thought to have entered the English language sometime between 1300 and 1350 from the Latin (with a stop along the way at Middle French). The Latin word "aliēnus" derived from the earlier "alius," meaning “other” or “else.” So an “alien” is, essentially, someone who comes from somewhere else.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), use of the word “alien” in the way most closely approximating its usage in U.S. immigration jurisprudence — as a noun, meaning “[a] person belonging to another family, race, or nation; a stranger, a foreigner,” especially “[o]ne who is a subject of another country than that in which he resides” — first appears in the written English language in 1330. In 1384, the Wycliffe Bible, a translation of the Latin Vulgate Bible into Middle English, also used the word “alyenys” (aliens) as a noun. A later usage — “All Alienys ai banyst hale” — is from a history of Scotland from 1425 (and means something like “all aliens are banished to a remote place”). The OED cites the first legal usage as dating from 1522, when a law passed under Henry VIII provided, “No Stranger, being Alien borne ... shall take, retaine or keep into his or their seruices any maner of Journyman.”

Fast-forward to early American jurisprudence, and the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power “[t]o establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization.” The Naturalization Act of 1790 — the first American law touching at all on the subject of immigration — provided the first such set of rules, allowing Congress to naturalize “any Alien being a free White person,” so long as such person met certain residence requirements, established that he or she was a person of good moral character, and took an oath or affirmation to support the Constitution of the United States. And thus was the word “alien” enshrined in U.S. immigration law.

Aliens as Other

Notwithstanding the fact that “alien” is embodied in our law as a term of art, and that its first dictionary definition simply means “foreigner,” not only does its second definition as “strange” or “repugnant” give the word a certain stench, its third definition as “extraterrestrial” enhances its dehumanizing effect. When I was called “E.T.” in Japan many years ago, I could laugh it off because I knew that I would be returning to the United States once my graduate fellowship was complete. It did not have any long-lasting effect on how I perceived myself as a human being. For immigrants to the United States, whether they are here without authorization or have immigrated through statutorily sanctioned channels, the lingering after-effects of the designation are undoubtedly harder to shake off.

Among many American indigenous peoples, the word a group or tribe uses to refer to itself often means something like “human being.” For example, students of anthropology invariably learn about anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon’s encounters with the Yanomami (or Yanomamö) people, an isolated Amazonian tribe who live in the remote rain forest of southern Venezuela and northern Brazil. The word “Yanomami” means “human being” in the tribe’s language, and was adopted by Chagnon to refer both to the culture and the people, though he may not have initially known what the word actually meant to the Yanomami themselves. It never occurred to the members of the tribe, however, to call Chagnon “Yanomami,” although he is undoubtedly a human being. Another example: While Europeans adopted the term “Eskimo” to refer to the indigenous peoples in Alaska, northern Canada and Greenland without realizing that it was actually a (possibly pejorative) description accorded them by neighboring ethnic groups, the so-called Eskimos called themselves “Inuit,” which simply means “people.”

Conversely, the words for “foreigner” in many languages reflect the users’ perception that the person referred to is most decidedly different in some fundamental way. For example, the Cantonese word used to refer to Europeans (i.e., white people) is "gwai lo" (or "gwei lo"), which means “ghost person,” and is sometimes translated into English as “foreign devil.” The predecessor word to "gaijin" in Japanese was "nanbanjin," literally “southern barbarian people,” referring to the Portuguese — the first Europeans to visit Japan — who arrived in ships sailing from the south. In Europe, the Vikings were considered savages or barbarians by those whom they invaded — the word “barbarian” deriving from the Greek "barbaros" (“foreign, strange, ignorant”) and "barbaroi" (“all that are not Greek”). Calling people from foreign lands by names that reflect one’s own prejudices appears to be a consistent trait across cultures, and there is no dearth of examples of how human beings tend to adopt dehumanizing appellations for those perceived as “other.”

Discomfort with the “other” is also revealed in the problematic issue of cross-racial eyewitness identifications, which numerous empirical studies have demonstrated are notoriously unreliable. Attributing such misidentifications to deliberate racism, however, may miss the point. The cause can just as easily be something less malevolent but equally unsettling: sheer unfamiliarity with one another’s faces, notwithstanding the fact that people of different races often live side-by-side (at least in large urban areas) in this country, and see each other in movies and on television on a daily basis. In 2001, John Rutledge, an attorney now in private practice in Nevada, hypothesized as much, based on his unique experience of having been one of the few Caucasian students in the predominantly African-American student body at Howard University School of Law, and citing a number of psychological studies to support his personal conclusion that prior to matriculating at Howard, he was quite simply unfamiliar with the physiognomic variety of African-American faces. It seems he may have been on to something, as a more recent study found that exposing Caucasian subjects to African-American faces significantly improved their ability to differentiate them.

Aliens as Extraterrestrials

What does outer space have to do with any of this? As it turns out, the use of the word “alien” to refer to creatures from outer space is much more recent than one might imagine. The earliest references in the OED Online date from stories in a pulp science fiction magazine, Wonder Stories, in 1929 (the “alien intelligence”) and 1932 (the “alien ship”). In both cases, the word is used as an adjective, not a noun. But science fiction also contains some uses of “alien” as a noun to refer to extraterrestrials dating from the same general period. In 1935, Earl Binder wrote of a “Robot Alien” in Wonder Stories. In 1931, Nat Schachner & Arthur Leo Zagat wrote about “ten-foot tall aliens” in Venus Mines. And in 1912, Edgar Rice Burroughs (best known for his Tarzan stories) has a Martian character in "A Princess of Mars" call earthling John Carter “an alien.” Still, in the scheme of things, the use of “alien” to refer to extraterrestrial creatures is really quite recent.

So what does this all mean? Well, it turns out that we had already been calling foreigners aliens for centuries before we started using the word to refer to extraterrestrials. So it’s not that we think foreigners resemble Martians, it’s that we think Martians resemble foreigners. Put another way: It is not the case that, the first time we saw a foreigner, he reminded us of a Martian. Rather, when we in the English-speaking world first conceived of the possibility — or at least first started writing about the notion — that there might be Martians (green skin and all that), we imagined them to be akin to foreigners. This actually has interesting sociological implications. Could this account, for example, for why people who insist they are not racist often do so by saying something like, “I don’t care if you’re black, white, green or purple ...”?

Why is it important to recognize that we appear to have named extraterrestrials after foreigners, rather than the other way around? Because it shows just how very much we fear what is different. It also suggests that until we demystify foreigners — perhaps by remembering that apart from Native Americans, we are all descendants of immigrants, i.e., foreigners, in this country — we will just, at best, find a new euphemism to name that which makes us uncomfortable.

The Importance of the Power to Name

"Gaijin" is now considered to be politically incorrect. In at least some circles, so is "alien." Do we care?

Another personal anecdote: As a college student — and an English major, no less — I insisted on spelling woman as "womon" and women as "womyn" in all of my papers. I would include an introductory paragraph or footnote in every paper explaining the political and etymological reasons (something along the lines of “woman” deriving from the Old English "wifman," a compound of "wif" (female) and "man" (human being), therefore essentially defining man as the norm, and woman as the exception.) I also consistently wrote "s/he" instead of “he” as a generic singular pronoun. But that’s not the best part. The best part is that no professor ever objected to these grammatical choices I made — or even mentioned them. Granted, this was at Oberlin College, in the 1970s. In few other times or places could such a feat have been accomplished with a straight face, much less with a decent grade point average. Readers will note that I have long since abandoned the practice. But was the instinct entirely misplaced? I think not. Even if my college-era feminist linguistic choices were based, in part, on a kind of politically correct folk etymology, there was a real point to be made: Language has power. Changes in how language is used can lead to changes in how power is wielded.

Linguists talk about euphemism (starting with the Greek root "eu," “good”) and dysphemism (from the Greek root "dus," “bad”) as, in the words of Susanna Cumming, formerly a professor of linguistics at the University of California at Santa Barbara, “terms [that] give us ways of talking about the evaluative content of language: that part which doesn’t describe a thing in the world, but rather expresses the speaker’s attitude towards it.” “Euphemism” can thus be defined as “making something sound better,” and “dysphemism” as “making something sound worse.” As professor Cumming has put it, “A euphemism is used as an alternative to a dispreferred expression, in order to avoid possible loss of face: either one’s own face or, through giving offence, that of the audience, or of some third party.”

For example, think about the following words: the N-word, negro, colored, black, African-American. How do these words make you feel? Do you think that your race might make a real difference in how you react when you hear or read these words? What about the following: imbecile, insane, retarded, mentally ill, mentally challenged, developmentally disabled? How about deformed, crippled, handicapped, differently abled? It’s almost as if there should be a line, a fill-in-the-blank, at the end of all of those strings of words. After all, we’re bound to come up with new terms soon, aren’t we? These changes “arise through a process called pejorization: a neutral or even euphemistic word for a ‘bad’ thing comes to be seen as a ‘bad’ word (which then needs to be replaced with another euphemism).” In each of the examples provided above, “a formerly neutral term becomes dysphemistic and has to be replaced.”

Let’s bring this closer to home. Be honest, now: Which of the following is closer to what comes to mind when you hear the term “illegal alien” or “undocumented alien” — a German graduate student who has overstayed her visa, or a Mexican laborer who has illegally crossed our southern border? I think it’s a safe bet that, whatever your political persuasion, you were more likely to think of the Mexican. Many have argued for replacing “alien” (or “illegal alien”) with some other term. (“What about immigrant, undocumented immigrant … or human being?” asks Kevin Johnson, reasonably enough.) Among those who work in the area of international human rights law on issues of global migration, the somewhat bureaucratic term “irregular migrant” has become chic in recent years. Are we just taking political correctness to a ridiculous extreme?

Again, I think not. The power inherent in the ability to ascribe names is real, as is the impact on the named. Nowadays, it is socially unacceptable for a white man to call a black man “boy,” but for years this was accepted practice in polite society — and, it is now commonly understood, not only reflected white society’s racism, but served to perpetuate the oppression of African-American men. Calling a grown woman a “girl” has a similarly belittling effect, and the fact that the practice has not yet been universally repudiated tells us something important about the continued inequality of women in American society. As professor Catherine MacKinnon of the University of Michigan Law School has written, “Social inequality is substantially created and enforced—that is, done—through words and images.” Referring to immigrants as “aliens,” when “alien” is commonly understood to be derogatory (whether because it means foreign, or strange, or brings images of extraterrestrial space creatures to mind), not only reflects immigrants’ place in American society, but in a very real way it enforces it. Laurie Berg, an Australian legal scholar, agrees, and has said, “[T]hese characterisations matter ... [T]he labels which attach to … migrants … also function to delineate the precise capacity in which they are accorded rights.”

In her seminal book, "Language and Woman’s Place," linguist Robin Lakoff declared that “[l]inguistic imbalances are worthy of study because they bring into sharper focus real-world imbalances and inequities. They are clues that some external situation needs changing ...” While she was specifically discussing terms she considered demeaning to women, her point is equally relevant to terms that are demeaning to immigrants.

We can agree to stop using the word “alien” to refer to immigrants, agree that it is demeaning and causes real damage to the individuals concerned. However, a new euphemism alone won’t solve the problem. While the term “irregular migrant” might seem to be less demeaning than “illegal alien” or “undocumented alien” — better, then, than any phrase that includes the word “alien” — the term still implies that there is something not-regular, not “normal,” about the people concerned. To the extent that “irregular migrant” or some other term (other, that is, than “human being”) replaces “alien” in popular, legal and academic discourse, it will only temporarily paper over the truth about such migrants’ place in society.

Robin Lakoff has also said that “linguistic and social change go hand in hand: one cannot, purely by changing language use, change social status.” It is, however, sometimes difficult to tease out what is cause and what is effect. Does social change create language change, or does language change create social change? According to Lakoff, “[A]t best, language change influences changes in attitudes slowly and indirectly, and these changes in attitudes will not be reflected in social change unless society is receptive already.” But as a member of a community of lawyers, scholars, advocates and others who work with, and care deeply about the plight of, immigrants in this country, I feel that we have a duty to do what we can to make society receptive already. So let’s stop calling non-citizens aliens. Let’s just call them people.

By Careen Shannon

Careen Shannon is an attorney and writer in New York City.

MORE FROM Careen Shannon