Our office will be closed over the holiday period from December 22, 2022 to January 2, 2023. Happy Holidays!

Alien? Ex-pat? 'American in waiting'? The importance of language used in US immigration law

1930s British politician Pearl Strachan Hurd famously said, "Handle them carefully, for words have more power than atom bombs". While the context may have changed, the warning continues to ring true today when the words we choose have the power to profoundly shape our world and interactions with others.

A dilemma that frequently arises in the context of US immigration is the word that should be used to describe non-US individuals who live in the USA on a short or long-term basis. Migrant? Ex-pat? Immigrant? Under US immigration regulations, the correct legal terminology is "alien". The Immigration and Nationality Act defines an "alien" as "any person not a citizen or national of the United States", with the word being embedded in US immigration regulations and immigration forms.

Besides conjuring images of green creatures with antennae, the word is often viewed as offensive and unsavoury amongst immigrants, inclusion advocates, and an increasingly large percentage of the public. This is particularly so when the mass media sensationalises the topic on a semi-regular basis to inflame spirits against "illegal aliens."

The Guardian newspaper in the UK recently published a thought-provoking article entitled "Why are white people expats when the rest of us are immigrants?" A thought-provoking read, the article has nonetheless been criticised for failing to note the significant difference between a person who moves to a new country intending to live there on a permanent basis (who critics argue should be labelled 'immigrants'); and a person who lives or works outside their own country of nationality for a limited time period while intending to return to their country of origin (who are said to be 'ex-pats'). Rebutting this criticism is the assertion that a person's intent can be fluid and can change over time. Additionally, it does not explain why the general public is more likely to consider certain nationalities living in a different country to be 'migrants', whereas individuals possessing certain nationalities perceived as 'more favourable' are more likely to be referred to as 'ex-pats'. It appears that the level of opportunities and potential achievement in one's own country of nationality, as well as economic considerations all play a role in the label that society may assign.

Many commentators point to the harm that insensitive language can cause. For instance, the University of Michigan has recently launched an inclusive language campaign to raise awareness of hurtful words, encouraging students to think before using words such as "illegal alien". Universities and NGOs are not the only ones who have been paying attention to this seemingly small but emotionally charged topic. In a White House Press Release, President Obama reframed the immigration debate by referring to his US immigration reform proposals for "Americans-in-waiting".

Some people wonder whether the language used really matters so long as we can understand the message that is being communicated. Others worry that we are developing into a hyper-sensitive society where people are no longer free to speak their mind for fear of phrasing their thoughts in a "non-PC" manner and where form trumps substance. These valid considerations are excellent points of discussion and a debate that should be further expanded upon.

An ironic point to consider is that, under the original definition of the word 'alien' which originated in England in the 1700s, most Americans would be classified as 'aliens'. English jurist William Blackstone published "Commentaries of the Laws of England" which defined an 'alien' as anyone born outside the king's dominion. Perhaps one the point to consider in this debate is one's own feelings if they themselves were to be referred to as 'aliens'.

Want more US immigration news? Connect with us on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ for the latest developments in US immigration law.