Why Did We Ever Call Undocumented Immigrants 'Aliens'? - Pacific Standard

Why Did We Ever Call Undocumented Immigrants 'Aliens'?

We look at the history of the word as it's removed from California's legal lexicon.
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A group of marchers moves from the U.S. Capitol toward the Lincoln Memorial grounds for the One Nation Working Together rally in Washington, D.C. (Photo: ep_jhu/Flickr)

A group of marchers moves from the U.S. Capitol toward the Lincoln Memorial grounds for the One Nation Working Together rally in Washington, D.C. (Photo: ep_jhu/Flickr)

Yesterday, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a law that removes the word "alien" from the state's labor code. It's a change that's largely symbolic—Brown signed other laws yesterday that make a more concrete difference—but the vocabulary shift is still important to many. "Alien is now commonly considered a derogatory term for a foreign-born person and has very negative connotations," as California Senator Tony Mendoza, who introduced the bill, told the Los Angeles Times.

How did "alien" come to be a term for immigrants in the first place? American politicians have actually used the word to denote foreign nationals for more than 200 years. Legally speaking, it doesn't have anything to do with an immigrant's documentation status. You can be an alien whether you entered the United States with or without papers.

In the 1970s, federal agencies in charge of immigration played up illegality in hopes of increasing their budgets.

Between the 1950s and the '90s, however, newspapers began using the phrase "illegal alien" more frequently, as sociology student Edwin Ackerman documents in a paper published in the journal Ethnic and Racial Studies in 2012. The rise in the phrase's popularity paralleled the emergence in the American political consciousness that how an immigrant entered the U.S. mattered, Ackerman argues. In other words, before the 1970s or so, most Americans didn't much care whether people entered the country legally or illegally. They found other reasons to worry about, and discriminate against, immigrants. But in the 1970s, federal agencies in charge of immigration played up illegality in hopes of increasing their budgets, Ackerman argues. He cites an analysis of Los Angeles Times articles from that period, which found that more than one in five border officials quoted in news stories talked about how agencies needed more money, and how a greater number of undocumented immigrants were entering the U.S. than ever. Meanwhile, official estimates of the number of undocumented immigrants varied wildly, Ackerman writes, suggesting the numbers were unreliable.

At the same time, labor-union leaders saw undocumented workers as strike-breakers, and ethnicity-based organizations sought to reduce discrimination against their members by separating themselves from undocumented immigrants, Ackerman writes. The combination of all of these forces—which weren't trying to work together—made the idea of undocumented immigrants being a problem a particularly powerful cultural force. By 1994, 90 percent of newspaper articles addressed undocumented immigrants as "illegal aliens."

Coincidentally, "alien" gained its science-fiction definition with the Space Age in the 1950s. So now we have a word that once meant foreign national, but has taken on implications of being criminal, potentially even less than human.

Does it matter what we call immigrants? One recent study found that what terms news media use to refer to immigrants doesn't affect what immigration policies readers support. Maybe banning words doesn't cause changes in policy, but it is a reflection of shifting public perception. After all, California laws are among the most inclusionary of immigrants, as Pacific Standard recently reported. The "California Package" of laws offers immigrants of all stripes unique freedom of movement and opportunity. It's no wonder the Golden State should pioneer symbolic, cultural changes as well as legal, material ones.

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