Two weeks ago, the U.S. Library of Congress announced its decision to abrogate the use of “illegal aliens” as a subject heading. Instead, it will use “noncitizens” and “unauthorized immigration” as bibliographic terms to organize the catalogs’ literature on immigration. This recent decision highlights not only two years of devoted activism on the part of Dartmouth College students and the need for greater student activism across the nation, but also a progressive shift in the public conscious, confronting institutional support of dehumanizing and racially charged language.
This initiative began in the summer of 2014, after Dartmouth student Melissa Padilla noticed the appearance of “illegal aliens” as a subject heading while she searched the Dartmouth catalog, organized by the Library of Congress, for a project. In response, she and other students brought this issue to the Dartmouth Coalition for Immigration Reform, Equality and DREAMers — an initiative that emphasized the pejorative connotations of this term and subsequently petitioned the Library of Congress, which also organizes the USC catalog, to remove it. In early 2015, upon the Library’s initial rejection of the group’s proposal, the American Library Association joined the student’s cause, thus forming a partnership that would influence the library’s decision to replace “illegal aliens” with neutral language.
The CoFIRED initiative and the Library of Congress’ consequent decision are a reflection of the gradual movement away from the use of this term, particularly in the media. The Associated Press, USA Today and the Los Angeles Times comprise just a small portion of the news sources that have, over the years, abandoned the word “illegal” to describe immigrants. The library noted this phenomenon in its March 22 executive summary. To this point, Robert Labaree — librarian in the Von Kleinsmid Center library — stated that subject headings are a “sign of the times.” In the past, changes to the library’s catalogs, like the eventual rejection of the n-word and other racial slurs, have similarly recognized insensitive and antiquated terminology that fails to reflect evolving discourse.
Critics, however, bewail decisions like this one as a concession to political correctness. Ira Melman, media director for the Federation of American Immigration Reform, which promotes strict enforcement of existing immigration laws, described the change as unwarranted.
“It’s giving into political correctness,” he said. “‘Illegal alien’ is a proper legal term.”
Melman’s own appeal to semantic precision and the preservation of political incorrectness is misguided. The use of “illegal alien” is neither legally nor morally defensible. Firstly, the term is legally inaccurate. The word “illegal” suggests criminality when, in reality, one’s presence in the U.S. without proper documents is a civil offense, not a criminal one. Moreover, the term suggests that a “guilty” verdict has been rendered and the individual in question is a criminal defendant. Secondly, the term is morally unjustifiable. Its propagation scapegoats undocumented individuals suffering at the hands of a system unwilling to confront its own deficiencies. Moreover, words like “alien” are dehumanizing and promote racial and ethnic hatred, akin to that seen from some presidential candidates.
Recognizing the truth that semantics indeed matter, a number of representatives have made it their personal mission to remove this language from the country’s legal codes. Last August, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that will remove “alien” from the state’s labor code. During the same period, the California Republican Party — seeking to distance itself from the likes of Donald Trump — erased the term from its official platform. In a national effort, Joaquin Castro, a Democratic congressman from Texas, has proposed a bill that would expunge the terms “illegal alien” and “alien” from federal laws. The bill unfortunately remains untouched in the Republican-dominated House.
In the face of political gridlock, student activism, like that of the Dartmouth College students, is not only powerful but also necessary. As members of the academic community, promoting values like equality and justice, students are responsible for taking part in this effort to correct information that furthers the disenfranchisement of vulnerable communities. As the CoFIRED initiative illustrates, effectual change is possible.