Luz Rivas remembers seeing the word on her mother’s residence permit when she was a child: “foreigner”.
In harsh government terms, this meant that her mother was not yet a citizen of the United States. But for his young daughter, the word had a more personal meaning. Even if they were going through the naturalization process, it meant that the family did not belong.
“I want other immigrant children like me not to feel the same as me, that my family felt, when we saw the word ‘foreigner’,” said Rivas, now a member of the Assembly. California Legislature.
The Democratic lawmaker sought to withdraw the mandate and drafted a bill this year – since the signing of the law – which replaces the use of “foreigner” in state laws with other terms such as “non-citizen” or “immigrant”. His effort was inspired by a similar change earlier this year by the Biden administration.
Immigrants and immigrant rights groups say the term, especially when combined with “illegal,” is dehumanizing and can have a detrimental effect on immigration policy.
The word became a focal point of debate in several states earlier this year as the number of migrants on the US-Mexico border increased and led to a backlash against the policies of the Biden administration by Republican governors and lawmakers. .
Lawmakers in at least seven states have considered eliminating the use of the terms “foreign” and “illegal” in state laws this year and replacing them with descriptions such as “undocumented” and “non-. citizen, ”according to the National Conference of State Legislative Assemblies.
Only two states, California and Colorado, actually made the switch.
“I want all Californians who contribute to our society, who are small business owners, who work hard, to feel like they are part of California communities,” Rivas said of the reason for his legislation.
State Senator Julie Gonzales, who co-sponsored Colorado’s new law, told a hearing before a legislative committee that words like “illegal” were “dehumanizing and derogatory” when applied to immigrants . Gonzales said the legislation was intended to remove the one place in Colorado law where “illegal alien” was used to describe people living illegally in the United States.
“This language has been offensive to a lot of people,” she said. “And part of the rationale behind that is really rooted in the idea that a person can certainly do an illegal act, but no human being himself is illegal.”
The use of “extraterrestrial” to describe those who are not US citizens has a long history, dating back to the country’s first naturalization law, passed when George Washington was president. Fearing war with France, Congress also passed the Aliens and Sedition Laws in 1798, which sought to suppress political subversion.
Changing long-standing government terminology regarding immigration is not universally accepted as necessary or desirable.
Colorado Senate Republicans spokesperson Sage Naumann said the Democratic-controlled legislature should spend its time on issues more important to residents, such as taking action to fight inflation, fight crime and improve education.
Naumann said he doubted “the average Coloradan – or the American – cares about the semi-controversial words that are buried in their state’s statutes.”
The Biden administration has also received some setback after its policy change.
In April, US Customs and Border Protection ordered employees to avoid using the word “foreigner” in internal documents and public communications and to use “non-citizen” or “migrant” instead. “Illegal alien” was also deleted, to be replaced by descriptions such as “undocumented non-citizen”.
“We enforce the laws of our country while preserving the dignity of every individual we interact with,” Acting Commissioner Troy Miller wrote to employees of America’s largest law enforcement agency, which includes the patrol border. “The words we use are important and will serve to further confer that dignity on those in our care. “
Border Patrol chief Rodney Scott objected, writing to other members of the agency that the edict contradicted the language of criminal laws – although Miller made an exception for legal documents – and took the plunge the agency in a partisan debate. Scott, an appointee during Trump’s day, refused to sign the order and believes his outspokenness about it and others helped him quit his post in June.
“Changing the law is good, but until then you really politicize the mission,” Scott said in an interview.
An Associated Press analysis (which does not refer to people as “foreigners” except in direct quotes) found that more than a dozen states still use the terms “foreign” or “illegal” in laws referring to immigrants. Among them is Texas, where a legislative attempt to transition to different terminology has advanced out of committee with bipartisan support this year, but failed to secure a full Texas House hearing.
State representative Art Fierro, a Democrat, said he expected a “pushback” when he initially proposed the change. But following the committee’s discussions, he said to his surprise, the change was seen by both sides as an effort to use more “dignified and respectful” terms. He said he suggested the change because he felt the initial conditions demeaned those seeking to work through the immigration process.
Fierro said he plans to introduce another bill to replace the terms during the state’s next ordinary legislative session, in 2023.
“We are just trying to treat people humanely,” he said.
Rosalidia Dardon knows from personal experience why the language surrounding immigration is so important.
After fleeing violence in El Salvador, she spent about 16 months in an immigrant detention center in California before arriving at a refugee home in Texas in 2016. She was determined to find a job while she applied for it. asylum, but had lost his work visa after his protection status expired.
Dardon, 54, blames the ankle monitor she had to wear and the description of immigrants with terms such as “illegal” for a job search marked by rejection after rejection.
A precise moment remains frozen in his memory.
“I won’t give you a job because you’re a criminal,” Dardon told the AP in Spanish, repeating what a Texas hiring manager told him.
“I would ask myself and God why I was given an ankle monitor if my only sin was going to a country that was not mine,” said Dardon, whose record of immigration is still pending. “Without Latinos this country would collapse. That is why we should be treated better.