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How Banning Three Useful Words Undermines Immigration Reform
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On April 2, 2013, the Associated Press announced amendments to its style book, effectively banning the use of the word “illegal” to describe a person as in “an illegal immigrant.” This announcement was followed by similar pronouncements from other news sources, including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Denver Post.
Why should a useful and descriptive word be banished? My Webster’s dictionary defines “illegal” as “not according to or authorized by law” and also “not sanctioned by official rules”. Black’s Law Dictionary, which is commonly used by lawyers and law students, actually defines an “illegal alien” as “An alien who enters a country at the wrong time or place, eludes an examination by officials, obtains entry by fraud, or enters into a sham marriage to evade immigration laws.”
I regard these actions to banish “illegal” as a concerted effort to blur the distinction between legal immigrants and illegal immigrants, as if their immigration status and U.S. immigration law shouldn’t matter at all. I see these actions as in direct support of the on-going effort to enact an amnesty for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States, and to prevent the application of current U.S immigration law to them.
Perhaps encouraged by the successful banishment of the word “illegal”, immigration lawyer Careen Shannon says we should also stop using the word “alien” to describe foreigners because that term is now associated with extraterrestrial aliens in science fiction literature and movies. Like provincial Americans might actually think foreigners in the U.S. come from other planets?
“Alien” is another useful and descriptive word that we should not abandon in pursuit of political correctness. Black’s Law Dictionary defines “alien” as “A person who is not a citizen of a given country; a person not owing allegiance to a particular nation.”
The current immigration statute of the United States expressly defines “alien” as meaning “any person not a citizen or national of the United States.” The statute contains hundreds of references to “alien”, so banishing the term from our law would be a major undertaking. We can’t just substitute “non-citizen” for “alien” because there are non-citizen nationals of the United States, like the residents of American Samoa, who are neither citizens nor aliens.
Careen Shannon concludes, “Let’s just call them people.” Hey, if we’re all just people without distinctions, who needs immigration laws?
Finally, the supporters of amnesty for illegal aliens in the U.S., like Florida U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, insist that we shouldn’t call his proposal “amnesty”, because, “Amnesty is the forgiveness of something.” His bill is instead “comprehensive immigration reform” and “a pathway to citizenship” for the illegal. Right.
The last time the U.S. enacted a big amnesty for illegal aliens in the U.S., in 1986, Senator Rubio was a teenager in high school. At that time, everyone including the sponsors called it what it was, an amnesty. Black’s Law Dictionary actually gives as an example for “amnesty”: “the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act provided amnesty for undocumented aliens already present in the country.”
Because the 1986 amnesty encouraged much greater illegal immigration to the U.S., causing the current demand for an even bigger amnesty, the current sponsors would prefer to somehow distinguish their proposal from the 1986 amnesty. But the current proposal is substantively indistinguishable from the 1986 amnesty, and certainly does provide “forgiveness of something.”
The proponents and supporters of amnesty and increased immigration to the U.S. are trying to prevent the use of common descriptive terms to describe the substance of their proposal. If the American people understand the substance of so-called “comprehensive immigration reform”, they will prevent their representatives in Congress from enacting it into law.
Jan Ting is a Professor of Law at Temple University’s Beasley School of Law and a former Assistant Commissioner for Refugees, Asylum and Parole, Immigration and Naturalization Service, U.S. Department of Justice. Jan can be reached at