[Blogger’s Note:  Our guest blogger today is Careen Shannon, who is Of Counsel at Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy, LLP and an Adjunct Professor of Law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York. This is an updated and condensed version of an article Careen wrote for the online magazine Salon.com. Careen Shannon and Austin Fragomen blog about immigration issues at Fragomen on Immigration.] 

 No Longer Illegal, But Still An Alien

By Careen Shannon



When I lived in Japan in the early 1980s, they called me a gaijin: literally, an outside (gai) person (jin). While adults in the small town in which I initially resided generally satisfied themselves with staring at me wordlessly as I passed by, small children would often feign fear and yell “gaijin!” and then run away from me, screaming. I moved to Tokyo just when the film E.T. was released in Japan—which teenaged boys took as license to yell “E.T.!” when they saw me on the street. They tended to say it with a certain swaggering bravado, as if they were so above calling me gaijin like their country bumpkin cousins had done. But the implication in their clever pop culture association made my position in society clear, if it hadn’t been already: I wasn’t just a foreigner, an outsider. I was an alien. I might as well have been from outer space.

As Angelo has already reported here, and as I wrote recently in an article on Salon.com entitled “Stop Calling People Aliens,” the use of the word “illegal” to describe non-citizens who are present in the United States without authorization is finally beginning to die a well-deserved death, at least in the mainstream press. The announcement by the Associated Press in April that it would no longer use the word “illegal” to describe a person, only a status or an action, was quickly followed by a number of other major newspapers, including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Denver Post.

Despite this trend, the term “alien” remains not only in popular use, but also in the federal statute that regulates immigration to the United States, the Immigration and Nationality Act, which defines “alien” as “any person not a citizen or national of the United States.” The text of the comprehensive immigration reform bill recently approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee does nothing to upset this long-standing practice. Like the Japanese word gaijin, the word “alien” serves to exclude those upon whom it is bestowed. While it is true that Black’s Law Dictionary defines “alien” rather dispassionately as “[a] person who resides within the borders of a country but is not a citizen or subject of that country,” the colloquial use of the term is closer to its “regular” dictionary definition: “strange” or “repugnant” or “in science fiction, a being in or from outer space and not native to the Earth; extraterrestrial.”

Some may say that calling immigrants “aliens” doesn’t really matter, especially when the word is embodied in our law as a term of art. But I think it does matter, and I am not alone in this belief. When I was called “E.T.” in Japan many years ago, I could laugh it off because I knew that I would be returning to the United States once my graduate fellowship was complete. The epithet did not have any long-lasting impact on how I perceived myself as a human being. For immigrants to the United States, however, whether they are here without authorization or have immigrated through statutorily sanctioned channels, the lingering after-effects of the designation are undoubtedly harder to shake off.

As Professor Kevin R. Johnson, Dean of the University of California at Davis School of Law, has put it, “[t]he concept of the alien has … subtle social consequences…. [I]t helps to reinforce and strengthen nativist sentiment toward members of new immigrant groups, which in turn influences U.S. responses to immigration and human rights issues.” Keith Cunningham-Parmeter, an Associate Professor of Law at Willamette University College of Law, wrote a fascinating article for the Fordham Law Review in 2011 called “Alien Language: Immigration Metaphors and The Jurisprudence of Otherness.” In it, he applied research in cognitive linguistics to critically evaluate the metaphoric constructions of immigrants in U.S. law. He found that the three conceptual immigration metaphors that dominate legal texts—immigrants are aliens, immigration is a flood, and immigration is an invasion—influence not only judicial outcomes, but also social discourse and the broader debate over immigration reform.

A quick look at the history and etymology of the word “alien” in English is instructive. The word “alien” is thought to have entered the English language sometime between 1300 and 1350 from the Latin. The Latin word aliēnus derived from the earlier alius, meaning “other” or “else.” So an “alien” is, essentially, someone who comes from somewhere else. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites the first legal usage as dating from 1522, in a law enacted under the reign of Henry VIII. Fast forward to early American jurisprudence, and the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power “[t]o establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization.” The Naturalization Act of 1790—the first American law touching at all on the subject of immigration—provided the first such set of rules, allowing Congress to naturalize “any Alien being a free White person,” so long as such person met certain residence requirements, established that he or she was a person of good moral character, and took an oath or affirmation to support the Constitution of the United States. And thus was the word “alien” enshrined in U.S. immigration law.

What does outer space have to do with any of this? As it turns out, the use of the word “alien” to refer to creatures from outer space is much more recent than one might imagine. The earliest uses of “alien” as a noun to refer to extraterrestrials date from the early twentieth century. In 1935, Earl Binder wrote of a “Robot Alien” in the pulp science fiction magazine, Wonder Stories. In 1931, Nat Schachner & Arthur Leo Zagat wrote about “ten-foot tall aliens” in Venus Mines. And in 1912, Edgar Rice Burroughs (best known for his Tarzan stories) had a Martian character in A Princess of Mars call earthling John Carter “an alien.” This means that we had already been calling foreigners aliens for centuries before we started using the word to refer to extraterrestrials.

The surprising conclusion this leads to is that it’s not that we think foreigners resemble Martians, it’s that we think Martians resemble foreigners. Put another way: it is not the case that, the first time we saw a foreigner, he reminded us of an imaginary space creature. Rather, when we in the English-speaking world first conceived of the possibility (or at least first started writing about the notion) that there might be Martians (green skin and all that), the only image we could bring to mind was of a foreigner—and therefore the only word we could think of using was one that we already used to describe odd, strange, foreign beings. The fact that we appear to have named extraterrestrials after foreigners, rather than the other way around, reveals both the fear and the nativism at the heart of the immigration debate, and we ignore this at our peril.

Dismissing objections to calling immigrants “aliens” as political correctness run amok misses the point. The fact is that language has power. Changes in how language is used can lead to changes in how power is wielded. For example, nowadays, it is socially unacceptable for a white man to call a black man “boy,” but for years this was accepted practice in polite society—and, it is now commonly understood, not only reflected white society’s racism, but served to perpetuate the oppression of African-American men. Calling a grown woman a “girl” has a similarly belittling effect, and the fact that the practice has not yet been universally repudiated tells us something important about the continued inequality of women in American society.

As Professor Catherine MacKinnon of the University of Michigan Law School has written, “Social inequality is substantially created and enforced—that is, done—through words and images.” Referring to immigrants as “aliens,” when “alien” is commonly understood to be derogatory (whether because it means foreign, or strange, or brings images of extraterrestrial space creatures to mind), not only reflects immigrants’ place in American society, but in a very real way it enforces it. And be honest, now: which of the following is closer to what comes to mind when you hear the term “illegal alien” or “undocumented alien”—a German graduate student who has overstayed her visa, or a Mexican laborer who has illegally crossed our southern border? I think it’s a safe bet that, whatever your political persuasion, you were more likely to think of the Mexican.

In her seminal book, Language and Woman’s Place, linguist Robin Lakoff declared that “[l]inguistic imbalances are worthy of study because they bring into sharper focus real-world imbalances and inequities. They are clues that some external situation needs changing….” While she was specifically discussing terms she considered demeaning to women, her point is equally relevant to terms that are demeaning to immigrants. Lakoff has also said that “linguistic and social change go hand in hand: one cannot, purely by changing language use, change social status.” It is, however, sometimes difficult to tease out what is cause and what is effect. Does social change create language change, or does language change create social change?

My article in Salon generated a lot of comments, most of which were unpleasant and aggressive, to put it mildly. One person even went to the trouble to track down my email address, and sent me a lovely piece of hate mail. This all just proves the point that the term “alien” is loaded with prejudice. While changing the language won’t eliminate the prejudice, sometimes the best thing one can do is to shine a light on a problem. The responses to my article certainly indicate that I hit a nerve.

According to Lakoff, “[A]t best, language change influences changes in attitudes slowly and indirectly, and these changes in attitudes will not be reflected in social change unless society is receptive already.” As a member of a community of lawyers, scholars, advocates and others who work with, and care deeply about the plight of, immigrants in this country, I feel that we have a duty to do what we can to make society receptive already. So let’s stop calling non-citizens aliens. Let’s just call them people.