But the symbolic meaning is enormous.
Biden’s bill, if passed, would remove the word foreigner from U.S. immigration law and replace it with the term non-citizen.
The term illegal alien, long decried as a dehumanizing insult by immigrant rights advocates, has become even more of a lightning rod in the age of possession – some senior federal officials have encouraged its use, and some state and local governments have taken steps to ban it.
The change of language on the first day of this administration, with Kamala Harris, the daughter of immigrants, is not only symbolic for me, but is fundamental, said José Antonio Vargas, an undocumented immigrant whose organization Define American advocates for a more accurate representation of immigrants.
The way we describe people remains the same. He says it affects the way we treat them. The way we talk about immigrants shapes politics. It reflects the issues that are really on the agenda here. It recognizes that individuals and families are at stake.
What the laws say now.
The U.S. Code currently defines an alien as a person who is not a citizen or national of the United States.
Officials pointed to the prevalence of this term in U.S. law in the past to protect their choice of words.
In 2018, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions asked prosecutors in an email to designate an alien illegally present in the United States as an illegal alien, citing the U.S. Code.
The term foreigner was often used by President Trump in his speeches when he warned of the dangers of uncontrolled illegal immigration.
In his final speech to the Mexican border last week, Trump used the term at least five times in one of his last speeches as president.
We were in the Trump administration, the eternal boogeyman, Vargas said. Every time Trump got in trouble, he started talking about illegal aliens and the border.
But not everyone in the Trump administration was a fan of that language.
In a Washington Post interview published shortly before his departure as acting secretary of homeland security in 2019, Kevin McAleenan told the newspaper that he avoided using the term illegal aliens and instead referred to people as migrants.
I think words count for a lot, McAleenan said, according to the Post. If you alienate half your audience by using terminology, you will never win an argument.
This is not the first attempt to change this wording.
California slapped a foreigner on the state labor code in 2015.
Last year, New York removed the term from the law and the Administrative Code.
In guidelines issued in 2019, New York City prohibits the term illegal alien when used with the intent to demean, insult, or harass a person. Violations, the city warned, can result in fines of up to $250,000.
And last year, two Colorado lawmakers introduced a bill to replace the term illegal alien with the term illegal immigrant. The bill never made it to the state Senate.
Hoaxes are for hire at the beginning of the administration of the asset
One of the first uses of the term foreigner caught the attention of the Trump administration in 2017, after officials unveiled a hotline for victims of crimes committed by deported foreigners.
The pranksters quickly flooded the thread with posts about aliens and shared examples of their comments about Martians and UFOs on social media.
But according to Vargas, this term and others used to demonize immigrants are not laughable.
Language has power. And I think we saw that in the Trump administration, how they used dehumanizing terms and how they demeaned the language and in turn demeaned the people, Vargas says. If you call them strangers, of course you put them in jail, of course you put them behind bars, of course you don’t care about separating little children from their parents.
Vargas said the new administration’s efforts to use more respectful language give him hope that some Americans’ views on illegal immigrants may also change. Changing a single word, he says, can have far-reaching consequences for millions of people.