Phoenix Congressman Ruben Gallego Pushes to Eliminate "Illegal Alien" from Federal Law

Immigration reform activists protest at the White House in Washington, DC, in 2010.
Immigration reform activists protest at the White House in Washington, DC, in 2010.
Ryan Rodrick Beiler

The word “alien” is a technical term defined by Merriam-Webster as “relating, belonging, or owing allegiance to another country or government.”

But U.S. Representative Ruben Gallego says it’s “dehumanizing and offensive.”

He recently signed on to co-sponsor a bill, introduced by Congressman Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), that would strike the word from federal law, signage, or literature and replace it with “foreign national.” Similarly, references to “illegal aliens” would be changed to “undocumented foreign nationals.”

“Words matter,” Gallego says. “The term ‘alien’...contributes to the prejudice and xenophobia that have become a too-familiar part of the national conversation on immigration. Immigrants, with or without status, deserve to be treated with respect.”

The move, which Gallego calls “long overdue,” follows years of liberal lobbying to “Drop the L-Word.” Some campaigners, led by the nonprofit advocacy group Race Forward, went so far as to equate the phrase with n*gger or f*ggot, pushing the Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and many other news outlets to stop labeling people who hop the border without authorization as “illegal immigrants.”

Ahead of the presidential debates, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and Define American, a pro-immigrant group founded by activist Jose Antonio Vargas, launched an online petition calling on CNN and the New York Times to follow suit.

Gallego says he hopes changing the phrasing in government code will “change the dialogue” about immigration reform.

Some Arizona immigrant-rights activists are right there with him.

Dulce Matuz, co-founder of the Arizona Dream Act Coalition, says she feels the term encourages racism.

“We’re not coming from outer space,” she says. “We’re all from the same planet. We’re all human beings so we should not be labeled as different.”

Others, though, argue it’s just semantics

Francisca Porchas, organizing director for the pro-immigrant activist group Puente Arizona. says Gallego and Castro should be using their time and influence as national Latino leaders to address “actual issues,” such as poor conditions in immigrant detention centers.

“If you ask anyone in the Latino community what the problem is, it isn’t that the word ‘alien’ is being used in federal law,” she says. “The problem is that the government is deporting and detaining people at record rates.”


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