Under Biden, new immigration tone takes center stage

President proposed swapping 'alien' with 'noncitizen' in immigration statute on Day One; other language shifts followed

Food industry workers rally Wednesday on the National Mall to highlight the contributions immigrants have made during the pandemic and call on Congress to deliver COVID-19 and citizenship relief for 11 million undocumented immigrants. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Food industry workers rally Wednesday on the National Mall to highlight the contributions immigrants have made during the pandemic and call on Congress to deliver COVID-19 and citizenship relief for 11 million undocumented immigrants. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted February 18, 2021 at 6:01am

It started as a routine business meeting, the year’s first for the House Judiciary Committee’s immigration panel, but it quickly devolved into a heated debate about terminology.

Subcommittee Chair Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., called for the words “legal and illegal” to be changed to “authorized and unauthorized” for private immigration bills, arguing that swapping the terms would be more legally precise. For instance, while it’s illegal to enter the U.S. without permission, someone who overstays a visa is unauthorized.

“It is important, I think, for our rules to reflect that someone can be inspected, admitted under a visa, and be unauthorized,” she said.

Lofgren’s proposal was met with swift backlash from committee Republicans. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, slammed the idea as “semantic BS and nonsense.”

Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif, quickly offered an amendment changing that provision back to “illegal,” which was ultimately defeated on party lines.

Messaging over immigration has taken center stage during President Joe Biden’s presidency, as he seeks to distinguish himself from his predecessor.

The new administration set the tone immediately, from proposing on Biden’s first day in office to swap “alien” for “noncitizen” in federal immigration statute, to embracing more inclusive terminology for LGBTQ individuals.

On Tuesday, Axios reported that immigration officials were instructed to avoid the terms “alien” and “illegal alien” in public communications. Joe Sowers, a spokesperson for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, confirmed to CQ Roll Call that Tracy L. Renaud, the agency’s interim director, signed a memo that “aligns our language practices with the administration’s guidance on the federal government’s use of immigration terminology.”

“This change is designed to encourage more inclusive language in the agency’s outreach efforts, internal documents and in overall communication with stakeholders, partners, and the general public,” Sowers said in a statement.

Under the Trump administration, officials pushed “us v. them” messaging, said Jennifer Quigley, refugee advocacy director at Human Rights First.

“I think what you're seeing is this way to try to remind folks that, yes we are a nation of immigrants, and it’s not an ‘us vs. them,’ it’s a ‘we,’” she said.

That difference in messaging was underscored as early as 2015 when former President Donald Trump launched his presidential campaign and referred to Mexican immigrants as “rapists,” paving the way for hardline immigration policies to take center stage in his campaign and presidency.

Trump frequently used “illegal alien” throughout his term to refer to immigrants without legal status. The term appears in the federal immigration statute but generally is viewed by the immigrant advocacy community as outdated and offensive.

“We've arrested nearly 500,000 illegal aliens with criminal records — some with very serious criminal records of the type you don't want to know about, like murder,” Trump said in a speech at the border wall during the final week of his presidency.

Trump’s immigration officials, including former acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf, former acting Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Mark Morgan, and former acting USCIS Director Ken Cuccinelli, also frequently used the term.

But Kevin McAleenan, who led DHS before Wolf, said he generally avoided using “alien” because of its loaded meanings.

“If you alienate half of your audience by your use of your terminology, it’s going to hamper your ability to ever win an argument,” McAleenan told The Washington Post in 2019 shortly before he resigned.

The prior administration’s hardline messaging on immigration — matched in turn with a slew of restrictive policies — even went so far as to revise long-standing American mottos.

Former USCIS director L. Francis Cissna grabbed headlines in 2018 when he removed the reference to “nation of immigrants” from the immigration agency’s mission statement.

Biden, in contrast, titled the immigration section in his campaign platform the “Biden plan for securing our values as a nation of immigrants” — perhaps a reference to its removal from the USCIS mission statement.

'Words absolutely matter'

Biden formally proposed eliminating the term “alien” in the Immigration and Nationality Act in legislation he proposed on his first day in office, and replacing it with “noncitizen.” The term dates back to at least the 18th century, when prominent British jurist Sir William Blackstone defined “alien” as covering those born outside of the king’s dominion.

In the same proposed bill, Biden also said he wants to swap “spouse” for “permanent partner” to recognize same-sex relationships in case some immigrants hail from countries that do not allow gay marriage.

The two ideas are not entirely new.

In 2019, Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, former chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, proposed a bill dubbed the Correcting Hurtful and Alienating Names in Government Expression, or CHANGE, Act, which would replace references to “alien” in federal law to “foreign national.”

And Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., have repeatedly proposed legislation to recognize same-sex permanent partnerships in the immigration statute, allowing immigrants from countries that hadn’t legalized gay marriage to sponsor their partners for green cards.

Although swapping “alien” with “noncitizen,” and other similar language changes would be primarily symbolic, advocates say that symbolism can spur real effects on the ground.

“Words absolutely matter. We don’t have to put the word ‘illegal,’ for example, before jaywalking,” Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, said at the immigration subcommittee meeting with Lofgren earlier this month.

This could prove particularly important during the pandemic, when public health officials must gain the trust of immigrant communities to encourage them to get tested for COVID-19 and vaccinated.

This trust has been in part eroded under the Trump administration, which ramped up immigration enforcement at state courthouses and implemented its public charge rule, which stated that immigrants would be denied green cards for previously using public assistance programs. Advocates argue this immigration rule has had a chilling effect on immigrant usage of free health services, regardless of whether the services would have actually counted against them.

“I do think that change of language, in tone — and obviously policies as well — can really help change how people feel in their level of fear,” said Kerri Talbot, director at Immigration Hub and former chief counsel for Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J. “It’s really critical, obviously in a pandemic, to make sure people feel comfortable coming forward and getting testing and vaccines.”

These language changes could also codify key protections for LGBTQ immigrants, advocates said.

Aaron C. Morris, executive director of Immigration Equality, which heavily lobbied in favor of the bill by Nadler and Leahy, said that while the U.S. has recognized same-sex partnerships abroad, changing the law to formally recognize permanent partners would position the U.S. as a civil and human rights leader.

“This is hugely significant for the LGBT community,” Morris said. “It would be a real message to the rest of the world that we would recognize relationships even in other places.”

Advocates said they’d also like to see the tone change at higher levels ultimately shift priorities within the rank-and-file, such as at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, whose officers are tasked with apprehending migrants who cross the border without authorization. In 2019, it was revealed that CBP officers were part of a secret Facebook group where they published racist and sexist posts.

“CBP views itself as a law enforcement agency. It does not view itself as part of a system of humanitarian protection and reception,” said Quigley, of Human Rights First.

Quigley said her organization encourages the new administration to instill a “culture change” at CBP aimed at highlighting the agency’s dual roles.

The Biden administration has been cautious, however, about taking its changed messaging too far to avoid encouraging increased migration to the southwest border.

While repeatedly emphasizing immigrants’ contributions to communities and promising to undo Trump’s immigration restrictions, White House officials have taken pains to counteract their welcoming message with another one: Don’t come here.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki emphasized at several press conferences in February that now is “not the right time to come” to the border, since the new administration has yet to replace current asylum processing systems.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas , the first Latino and immigrant to lead the department, echoed a similar statement after the administration announced plans Friday to let in migrants currently stuck waiting in Mexico under a Trump-era border program.

“Due to the current pandemic, restrictions at the border remain in place and will be enforced,” Mayorkas said.