alien orange.jpgWith the Obama Administration and lawmakers in both parties promising to fix our dysfunctional immigration system, it’s time for a reality-based understanding of global migration and a fresh choice of words.  

As Prof. Fariborz Ghadar, Senior Advisor and Scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Affairs, observes:

Just as a teenager grows up and dismisses the simplistic views espoused in the fairy tales of childhood, so too must we as a nation face the reality that we are no longer the world leader in welcoming talent. 

Beyond global awareness, if we hope to make America more inviting to those whom we would woo, our words of intended welcome should not be unwelcoming.

Consider how, by statute, we label all manner of entrants, be they visitors, temporary workers, would-be immigrants or those long ago granted permanent residency.  We call them “aliens” — a word in all its inhospitable and off-putting variations that invokes the strange, the frightening, the incompatible, the dreaded other.

Consider too these dictionary definitions:

alien /ˈeɪlijən/adjective

1 [more alien; most alien] : not familiar or like other things you have known : different from what you are used to 

▪ She felt lost in an alien [=strange] culture when she moved to the city.▪ an alien environment▪ Honesty seems to be an alien concept in that family. [=people in that family are not honest]— often + to▪ The whole idea of having a job was alien [=unfamiliar, foreign] to him.

2: from another country :foreign

▪ alien residents

3 [more alien; most alien] : too different from something to be acceptable or suitable — + to▪ Such behavior is totally alien to the spirit of the religion.▪ ideas alien to [=incompatible with] democracy

4: from somewhere other than the planet Earth 

▪ an alien spaceship▪ The movie is a story about an attack on Earth by an army of alien [=extraterrestrial] monsters.

alienate  /ˈālēəˌnāt/Verb

1.Cause (someone) to feel isolated or estranged.2.Cause (someone) to become unsympathetic or hostile: “the association alienated its members”.

1: to make unfriendly, hostile, or indifferent especially where attachment formerly existed

2: to convey or transfer (as property or a right) usually by a specific act rather than the due course of law

3: to cause to be withdrawn or diverted

Synonyms: alien, estrange, disaffect, disgruntle, sour

When, decades ago, I first began practicing immigration law, I didn’t give the word much thought, despite its alternative meanings, because it was — as the law professors taught — a “term of art.” As a technical matter, the Immigration and Nationality Act § 101 [8 U.S.C. § 1101], provides:

§ 101(a) Definitions
As used in this Act– . . .
(3) The term “alien” means any person not a citizen or national of the United States.


Somehow, as a defined statutory term, it seemed less harsh. Perhaps the term also didn’t bother me as much as its alternative meanings might suggest because of an early scholar of immigration who influenced and mentored many new practitioners, Maurice Roberts, Editor of Interpreter Releases (then the “Immigration Bible”) and a former Chairman of the Board of Immigration Appeals. Avuncular Morrie pronounced the word with a soft voice in what seemed an even softer, almost affectionate, way. He called non-citizens “AIL-yuns,” which to me sounded pleasant, like “millions,” or impressive, like “stallions.”

But times and phrasings have changed.  We would never refer to people of color today, as “colored” — the term generally used in the 1950s for African-Americans and other non-Caucasians.  So, “aliens” — the word — must go.

We should also drop the term “nonimmigrant” from our statutory lexicon because it defines by negation and suggests an inhospitable negativity.  Call everyone either visitors (entrants who will stay briefly), sojourners (temporary residents) or immigrants (permanent residents), depending on the envisioned length and purpose of their stay.  

If the importance of welcoming words seems like over-the-top political correctness, pause before final judgment, and listen to journalist and poet Musa Okwonga performing “the Migrant Manifesto“:


America need not surrender its sovereignty.  It need not open the borders for all to enter.  It must make hard choices, yet do so with respect for the dignity of all.  As we advocate for 21st Century immigration laws, and as Congress begins to fashion statutory text, we would all do well to consider these stirring words from “the Migrant Manifesto”:

We have been called many names. Illegals. Aliens. Guest Workers. Border crossers. Undesirables. . . . 

We demand the same privileges as corporations and the international elite, as they have the freedom to travel and to establish themselves wherever they choose. We are all worthy of opportunity and the chance to progress. We all have the right to a better life. . . . 

We believe that the only law deserving of our respect is an unprejudiced law, one that protects everyone, everywhere. No exclusions. No exceptions. We condemn the criminalization of migrant lives. . . .

To be a migrant means to be an explorer; it means movement, this is our shared condition. . . . We have the right to move and the right to not be forced to move. . . .

When the rights of migrants are denied the rights of citizens are at risk.

Dignity has no nationality.

On a similar theme, as Ai-jen Poo, the director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and co-director of the Caring Across Generations Campaign, notes:

We need immigration policies that reject “us versus them” approaches and instead support integration and connection between all Americans, including aspiring Americans. What’s at stake is the future of all of our families, and the future of the economy.

Let’s start by banishing bullying words, hate speech and statutory epithets.  Let’s stop the name-calling and start the welcoming.