House Considers Use of Term “Illegal Alien”


June 16, 2016

By Dale L. Wilcox

This week the House will debate whether to reverse the Library of Congress’s recent decision to strike the term “illegal alien” from its immigration research briefs. The Library, a taxpayer-funded entity that serves as the central research arm for Congress, made the decision in March claiming the term had “become pejorative.” But whether the decision is actually intended to narrow the range of thought, rather than purify it, is a question the House will hopefully take up and pursue aggressively.

In response to the Library’s solicitation for public comment, the Immigration Reform Law Institute (IRLI) submitted a detailed letter outlining the legitimacy of the term’s use and the dangers in purging of it. As defined in the Immigration and Nationality Act, “illegal alien” describes a person who is not a citizen or national of the United States and who either illegally entered the country (a crime) or violated the terms of their admission, such as overstaying a visa (a federal offense). In Title V of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which deals with law enforcement, there are five references to “illegal alien” alone. Unsurprisingly then, a Lexis search for the term “illegal alien” in the “US Courts of Appeals Cases” database produces an alert that the “search (‘illegal alien’) has been interrupted because it will return more than 3,000 results.” The same result is obtained when a similar search is performed in the “US District Court Cases” database. The Supreme Court also uses the term, although Justice Sotomayor, previously a member of not one but two pro-amnesty organizations, broke ground in her very first opinion when she chose to assuage the term, using instead the phrase “undocumented immigrant.”

Neither does the Obama DOJ like the term “illegal alien” having gone as far as asking judges in immigration cases to get its use struck from court filings. Their avoidance of the term in Texas’s DAPA-challenge forced the Fifth Circuit to weigh in on the issue when it decided to keep the freeze on that program last year. They set aside a portion of their opinion to discuss the issue, quoting a leading legal lexicographer who’s stated that “illegal alien” is “not an opprobrious epithet: it describes one present in a country in violation of the immigration laws (hence ‘illegal’).”

Ridding the vernacular of the term is clearly seen by the open-borders lobby as a key step in pushing through its immigration agenda. To exchange the descriptor “illegal” with “undocumented” is, of course, to pacify the underlying act and to treat the individuals in question as having done nothing wrong. But the language of our laws, like elsewhere, demands precision. Recently, the federal district court in Nebraska rightly pilloried a party’s use of the phrase “undocumented persons”, saying it was unspecific “because many persons possessing certain documentation may nonetheless be ‘illegal aliens’ as a matter of law”—To its credit, the Library of Congress recognizes this problem, although their new chosen alternative, “noncitizen”, seems to combine illegal with legal alien and be even less specific. Indeed, most “undocumented” immigrants actually do have documents; just illegally obtained ones. The Social Security Administration has estimated that 3 out of 4 illegal aliens have social security numbers, which they’ve either stolen from members of the public (disproportionately children) or simply made up. A more accurate term therefore might be “illegally documented aliens”, a term IRLI supports for the simple reason that it would bring more attention to the giant problem of identity theft.

Never ashamed at appearing hyperbolic, the open-borders lobby asserts that “illegal alien” is a “dehumanizing” term, as if identifying someone as an illegal alien actually banishes them from the human race. It must be appreciated, however, that succumbing to their intimidations will have very real consequences. To convince the American public that illegal immigration is not really illegal, then amnesty no longer is amnesty, and enforcing immigration law becomes unjust and unnecessary. This works to remove the ability of American citizens from exercising the core element of national sovereignty: being able to form the nation’s own admissions policy and freely decide who and how many can be invited into the country.

In 1921 the American public made a conscious decision (which has unfortunately unraveled since) to end mass immigration, focusing instead on giving the domestic labor market space to function naturally and ensuring against the nation becoming, as Teddy Roosevelt feared, a “polyglot boarding house.” If the open-borders lobby is successful in delegitimizing our communal independence and ability to control the flow of newcomers, we’ll never be free to make that choice again.

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