Things That Matter

Because Words Matter: NYC Votes To Ban The Words ‘Alien’ And ‘Illegal Immigrant’ From All Official Documents

When you hear the word’s ‘alien’ or ‘illegal immigrant’ used to describe a person, what goes through your mind? For many, these terms have been used to dehumanize and isolate migrant communities. Like so many other pejoratives used against minority communities, often times the intent is to create division.

We all recognize that words matter. So this small victory in New York City, where they’ve decided to ban the terms from all official documents is a huge step forward for the city’s migrant communities.

New York just became the largest city in the U.S. to ban the official use of the terms.

The New York City Council has voted to ban city officials and its law enforcement department from using the terms ‘alien’ and ‘illegal immigrant’ to refer to undocumented migrants in all official city documents.

In a 46-4 vote in favor of the bill on Thursday, the Council passed the measure sponsored by Queens Councilmember Francisco Moya.

“These words are outdated and loaded words used to dehumanize the people they describe. It’s time to retire them,” Council Member Francisco Moya said. The words will be prohibited from use in local laws, rules and documents and replaced with the term ‘noncitizen.’

Words matter,” Moya added. “The language we choose to use has power and consequences. It’s time we as a city use our language to acknowledge people as people rather than to dehumanize them and divide us.”

The words have long been used to sow division so here’s why it’s such an important move.

Credit: David Zalubowski / Getty

The words and language we use determines the nature of a conversation. Terms like ‘alien’ and ‘illegal’, which so many of us grew up hearing on the radio and on TV, have an isolating, disorientating, dehumanizing effect and can really impact one’s identity.

New York isn’t the only place in the country working to undo the decisive rhetoric. Across the country, politicians and immigration activists are taking aim at the rhetoric etched into official documents.

At the national level, United States Representative Joaquin Castro, Democrat of Texas, introduced a bill in July that would replace “alien” and “illegal alien” with “foreign national” and “undocumented foreign national” in one of the country’s main immigration laws.

The vote comes after the NY state Human Rights Commission prohibited their use to demean someone.

Credit: New York City Council / Flickr

In late 2019, the New York Commission on Human Rights created a new rule that prohibited the use of the terms ‘illegal alien’ or ‘illegals’ with the “intent to demean, humiliate or harass a person.”

The guidance also made it illegal to harass or discriminate against “someone for their use of another language or their limited English proficiency, and threatening to call Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE ) on a person based on a discriminatory motive.”

The vote was nearly unanimous, however four council members voted no on the rule change.

The new rule had bipartisan, wide-ranking support on the city council and passed with a vote of 46-4. However, four council members did vote no on the measure –Robert Holden of Queens, Kalman Yeger of Brooklyn, and Staten Island lawmakers Joseph Borelli and Steven Matteo.

Holden told the New York Post the Council was “overstepping our bounds here prohibiting certain terms.”

“It’s like the speech police is out again,” he said. “’Alien’ is a term used for someone who is from another area, another land. That’s a term used in Congress and in the government.”

But it’s worth noting that other pejorative terms have been removed from government documents as people better understood the hurtful connotations.

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