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The Evolution Of The Immigration Term: Alien


Donald Trump, the billionaire presidential candidate, put out some ideas on immigration recently, and he repeatedly referred to immigrants who are in the country illegally as aliens. That is a word California recently deleted from its labor laws, calling derogatory. Adrian Florido, from NPR's Code Switch team, has this story about choosing the right words, and some of them listeners might find offensive.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Today, alien is frequently used by conservative politicians and pundits, folks like Ted Cruz.


TED CRUZ: San Francisco is a sanctuary city. It invites illegal aliens, including criminal illegal aliens, to come to San Francisco.

FLORIDO: Bill O'Reilly.


BILL O'REILLY: Why would the ACLU then bring this frivolous lawsuit to try to demand that rights Americans don't have be given to illegal aliens?

FLORIDO: And now Donald Trump. The terms alien and especially illegal alien have become so politically charged that many immigrant advocates cringe when they hear them. But that wasn't true just a few decades ago. In fact, in 1970, a group of Chicano UCLA students actually wrote to the LA Times suggesting the paper use the term illegal alien. They were responding to an editorial in the publication whose title referred to people who'd crossed illegally from Mexico as wetbacks.

EDWIN ACKERMAN: Since wetback was so racially tinged, it became harder for people to use it after the 1960s.

FLORIDO: That's Berkeley sociologist Edwin Ackerman. He says that's because the civil rights movement was making explicitly racist terms less acceptable. And so compared to wetback, illegal alien seemed OK.

ACKERMAN: That's partly why the language of illegality starts to pick up steam because it has this supposed neutrality to it.

FLORIDO: Soon illegal alien was everywhere. It was the preferred term in news articles and in some congressional hearings. In the '80s, President Reagan used the term...


RONALD REAGAN: Illegal aliens.

FLORIDO: ...When declaring his support for amnesty. The Border Patrol, labor unions - they all used it. Now, this was all happening at a time when illegal entries into the U.S. from Mexico were on the rise. That led to the formation of groups like the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which also adopted illegal alien. So then more and more, alien was used to portray immigrants as undesirable. Here's what a spokesman for California Governor Pete Wilson told NPR in 1994.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The criminal alien population is an enormous burden on the state of California. We have nearly 18,000 illegal immigrant prisoners in our state system.

FLORIDO: Edwin Ackerman says that by the '90s, alien was no longer seen as a neutral term. He says it had become code for bigotry.

ACKERMAN: It allows you to speak of a certain group of people without having to recourse to sort of any racist language.

FLORIDO: And so Latino activists who'd once promoted illegal alien as a neutral term instead started using terms like illegal immigrant and eventually undocumented immigrant. But while alien is literally being deleted from the books in California, it's still around not only on cable news but in official government language. Tony Mendoza, the California state senator who led the charge to strike the word in his state, wants that to change.

TONY MENDOZA: Hopefully the federal government will do it on the federal level and maybe every state will follow.

FLORIDO: He says he plans to talk with other government leaders about making alien history everywhere. Adrian Florido, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a reporter for NPR's Code Switch team, where he's covered race, identity and culture since 2015.
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