Replacing “Illegal Alien” and “Assimilation” in USA

The Biden administration has made a key announcement on how Americans talk about immigration. The terms “illegal alien” and “assimilation” have been replaced by “undocumented noncitizen” and “integration”. The details of this shift in terminology has been sent to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP). As reported by NPR:

“As an essential steward of a more secure and humane immigration system, ICE will set a tone and example for our country for years,” wrote Tae Johnson, ICE’s acting director in his memo announcing the new language guidance.

“The way that we choose to communicate is critical to enforcing the nation’s laws while respecting the humanity and dignity of those individuals with whom we interact.”

In my view, this new guidance marks a dramatic shift in immigration policy and perspective. It is more than simply a change in rhetoric. As readers of Slaw, I expect that you have a penchant for the importance of language. I have published my thoughts on the importance of language on this site as well as other sites. I would also highlight a 2018 Toronto Star Op-Ed by Jesse Beatson and Kylie Sier entitled “There’s nothing ‘illegal’ about asylum seekers”:

Applying the term “illegal border crossing” to refugees is based on a misconception. Irregular entry is not an offence in the Criminal Code, and should not be labelled as such. The language of illegality also tends to violate the presumption of innocence. This is a principle that should inform ethical journalism.

I agree with the above and I have tried to correct journalists and reporters on the usage of terminology. For example, on December 15, 2020, I recall having a pre-interview conversation with a producer at 680CJOB and many of the questions included “illegal” or problematic language. This language was not corrected during the interview and it led to an on-air conversation on how to speak about refugees in Canada. In contrast, I did not correct Chris Hall during a CBC News interview on The House back in 2018 and I remember getting into a heated debate over the use of “illegal aliens” coming the Canada with a group of Nigerian Professionals in Manitoba. 

I wonder how many years it will take for American media to stop using “illegal alien”. My guess is that it will take a while. The biggest difference on this point is that entering the USA without status is actually a criminal offence. (At least, that is my understanding. Feel free to provide details in the comments below.) In Canada, it is not a criminal offence.

I remember when I was living and working in Japan, I was required to carry my “Alien Registration Card”. I wonder if the usage of “alien” by Japanese immigration authorities has any connection with the language from the USA.

The shift from “assimilation” to “integration” may lead to a seismic change in policy. In Manitoba, at the heart of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, “assimilation” is connected with colonialism and the forcing “majority” values and education onto other groups. As stated in the University of Manitoba Statement of Apology and Reconciliation, signed by President and Vice-Chancellor David T. Barnard:

Our institution failed to recognize or challenge the forced assimilation of Aboriginal peoples and the subsequent loss of their language, culture and traditions.

Indeed, the “assimilation” of immigrants who have arrived to the USA may have faced similar experiences. The shift to “integration” by American organizations, including ICE and CBP reminds of Canada’s adoption of “multiculturalism” as official government policy back in 1971:

In his speech to the House of Commons, Trudeau stated that no singular culture could define Canada and that the government accepted “the contention of other cultural communities that they, too, are essential elements in Canada.” A policy of multiculturalism was implemented to promote respect for cultural diversity and grant ethnic groups the right to preserve and develop their own cultures within Canadian society.

Multiculturalism has been criticized as a largely “symbolic recognition of cultural diversity rather than substantive change”. And there is truth to that statement. On the other hand, language matters and the official adoption of “multiculturalism” by the Government of Canada, I would argue, has had a profound ripple effect on many Canadian laws and regulations.

I remember when I gave a presentation on Canadian Immigration law at the EB-5 Conference in Las Vegas, USA (back when we actually attended conferences in person), Canada’s multiculturalism policy was an easy way to describe the difference between Canadian immigration policies and those of the American government. You may be surprised but there are many sophisticated business leaders out there who see little difference between Canada and the USA.

I applaud the Biden Administration’s decision to adopt a more “humane” perspective to people who are seeking safety within the USA. Replacing the terms “illegal alien” and “assimilation” with “undocumented noncitizen” and “integration” is a step in the right direction, albeit a small step.

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