Scan the news these days, and you’d think we were in the throes of a War of the Worlds-style Martian invasion. “Aliens are responsible for a disproportionate share of serious crime.” “Illegal aliens arrested in Alabama.” “11 million illegal aliens already in the interior of the United States.”
When undocumented immigrants are detained, they’re assigned an A number. A is for alien. Donald Trump’s immigration plan mentions the A word 12 times. ICE’s main immigration enforcement tool is called the Criminal Alien Program, and immigration documents are peppered with terms like “non-permanent resident alien.” In the last year, CNN has used the terms “illegal immigrant” and “illegal alien” 1,995 times.
It is impossible to treat someone as fully human when you’re calling them an alien.
Recently, Canada’s newly elected prime minister, Justin Trudeau, appointed an equal number of women and men to his cabinet. When asked why, he replied simply, “Because it’s 2015.”
Let’s drop the words “alien” and “illegal” from the immigration conversation. Because it’s 2015.
“There is no human being who, as a result of desiring to build a better life, should be named or declared illegal.”
A few lawmakers, activists and media organizations are already acting like it’s 2015.
In October of this year, Texas Congressman Joaquin Castro introduced the Correcting Hurtful and Alienating Names in Government Expression (CHANGE) Act. If passed, the bill will replace “illegal alien” with “undocumented foreign national” in federal laws and literature.
In August 2015, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law legislation that erased the word “alien” from the state’s labor code.
Two years ago, the Associated Press – which is not only a news service but dictates the terminology used by most magazines and newspapers – announced it would no longer sanction calling a person an “illegal” or an “illegal immigrant.”
“There is no human being who, as a result of desiring to build a better life, should be named or declared illegal,” said filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu at an Art & Film gala in November 2015.
“No human being is illegal,” said Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel. “Human beings can be beautiful or more beautiful, they can be fat or skinny, they can be right or wrong, but illegal? How can a human being be illegal?”
When a person commits a violent crime, we don’t call them an illegal. When an employer hires an undocumented worker, we don’t call them an illegal employer.
A person who is in the United States without permission from immigration authorities has committed a civil misdemeanor. This person lacks the necessary legal paperwork. This person is not, by his or her very nature, an illegal.
Dropping degrading labels is not mere political correctness. Holocaust survivors like Elie Wiesel know the power of dehumanizing terms. The Nazis called Jews rats. Genocidal militias in Sudan called the Darfurians dogs and donkeys. Most colonizers called the natives savages. In World War II, American and British soldiers called the Germans Krauts, Fritz or Jerry. In the Vietnam War, American soldiers called every Vietnamese man, woman and child “Charlie,” and the military’s directive was to “Kill Charlie.”
We do this because it’s easier to harm people or strip them of their rights when we see them as less than precious, individual humans. Psychological studies have shown that dehumanizing people increases violence committed against them.
When astronauts view the world from above, they see no borders, because no borders naturally exist. A person does not alter his or her nature, from legal to illegal, by stepping across an invisible line. And though life may well exist on other planets, there are no aliens on Earth; there are only earthlings – humans.