Why “noncitizen” is a better word than “alien.”
Celia Jiménez here, still thinking about a minor yet important change that President Joe Biden suggested in his immigration reform plan: replacing “alien” with “noncitizen” as a word to identify a foreigner or immigrant. As someone who has been asked if I am an alien, I’m enthusiastic about this change.
I spoke about it with Professor Jaye Padgett, who teaches linguistics at UC Santa Cruz. He agrees the change is long overdue. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “alien” has been around for a long time, since the 1300s. At that time, Padgett says, “alien” was a neutral word, similar to “foreigner” and it simply meant that someone was from a different place.
It quickly took on negative connotations in reference to humans at the beginning of the 20th century, when it was used to mean “creatures from outer space.”
“When I hear the word alien, my first thought is always about things like ET and monsters that come from other planets,” Padgett says, adding that many English speakers have the same association, and the word makes them think about science fiction instead of people. Language is always evolving, Padgett adds: “The meaning of words change and we have to live with that reality and sometimes we have to change with it.”
At local and national levels, politicians and immigrant advocacy groups have long pushed to eliminate “alien” from the legal lexicon. In 2019, U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, introduced legislation to remove the terms “alien” and “illegal alien” from federal immigration law and change them to “foreign national” and “undocumented foreign national,” respectively.
In August 2015, former governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 432 eliminating “alien” from the state labor code. The bill was introduced by former Sen. Tony Mendoza, D-Los Angeles. He said the change was necessary because the word alien is considered derogatory and has negative connotations among immigrant residents. The same year, Jose Antonio Vargas, a journalist who is also an undocumented immigrant wrote, that “the label ‘alien’ is nothing but alienating,” in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times.
Padgett says “noncitizen” is a better word. It isn't perfect because it only focuses on the lack of citizenship. But given that what we mean has to do with immigration status, not what planet we come from (that part is a given), it is certainly more precise. At a minimum, it is certainly a more human way to refer to our fellow humans.
-Celia Jiménez, staff writer, firstname.lastname@example.org