Removing the Word “Alien” from our Laws is a Necessary Step to Address Racism and Trauma in Immigrant Communities
Andrea Cárcamo is CVT senior policy counsel, and Ariel Zarate, MA, LSW, is a mental health and psychosocial support technical advisor and intern in the CVT Washington, DC office.
Imagine arriving in what you believe to be a safe haven, a land of liberty and opportunity, after fleeing violence and persecution, only to realize that you are considered an alien — and this identity takes priority over you being considered a mother, a lawyer, a son . . . anyone.
The way the word “alien” is used in the U.S. today is deeply troubling. It is applied to all immigrants, including those attempting to seek asylum here. Instead of finding support and help, they are labeled as alien, both in legal and informal usage. The effects are dehumanizing and contribute to racism as well as impacting the mental and physical health of those marginalized by the word. While the Biden administration’s recent move away from the use of the term “illegal alien” is a welcome step, as is his attempt to do away with the word by including its removal in the U.S. Citizenship Act, Congress should take immediate steps to eradicate this term from our laws.
The word “alien” is culturally synonymous with a creature from another planet, and translates that way into many foreign languages. This highlights the effect of its use: to other, to separate, to distance “us” from “them,” to dehumanize. “Being an ‘alien’ is not who we are, it is not the fiber of our being,” said Gloria, an undocumented woman from Uganda. The word conveys an ugly lie. “I am not an alien. I am a human being. I just happen to come from a different country,” said Ndeye, a legal permanent resident from Senegal.
When asylum seekers arrive in the U.S. after an arduous journey, their identity is often scrutinized, they are often detained, their suffering is often questioned, and their personhood is often relegated to what is called an “A number.” The “A” stands for alien. This A number is the primary means the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies use to identify them until they become U.S. citizens — something that takes many years and is not possible for some due to restrictions in obtaining citizenship. As the key to accessing needed services and employment, this A number becomes a very real element of their identity in the U.S.
In addition, the use of the word “alien” enables racism by taking away the most sacred aspect of beings: their humanity. The term is most often used to refer to migrants of color. Dehumanizing language contributes to a perception of certain people as “other” or inferior and is often used with aversion. Casting “others” as dangerous is an egregious form of this dehumanization and has been shown to reflect in the function of our social cognition that facilitates atrocities, torture and genocide. These non-human classifications can vilify others who then become targets for anger and hate crimes as seen in the tragic killings in Atlanta and other recent acts of hatred, racism and violence against Asian Americans. As Nga Vương-Sandoval, a Vietnamese refugee and community advocate from Denver, Colorado, told us, “The minute you objectify or dehumanize [a person], you no longer view them as worthy of rights, privileges or even compassion. This perspective creates animosity and nullifies the person. In turn, this toxic normalization serves as justification for someone to inflict harm against another.”
The use of this word to describe non-citizens will continue to be acceptable as long as it is embedded in our laws. It is a plague in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). In a recent search, the word “alien” came up 3,244 times. The INA is written by Congress and incorporated in the Code of Federal Regulations, so it is no surprise that the use of the word “alien” continues to be generally acceptable. By giving license to anyone to continue using the term, xenophobia is enhanced, inclusion of immigrants into U.S. society is hindered, and psychological damage is inflicted upon immigrant communities.
Isolation, fear, anxiety and depressive symptoms only scratch the surface of the psychological toll of discrimination and anti-immigrant language. Media cycles filled with anti-immigrant rhetoric and dehumanizing language fuel discrimination and take a toll on the self-esteem and wellbeing of immigrant communities. The environment of violence and discrimination created by this label creates chronic stress that affects the bodies and minds of those who are othered. Beyond the toll that chronic stress takes on the body is the psychological impact of being relegated to the margins through this word. “It’s degrading and derogatory. [It makes] me feel like I don’t belong, like an outsider,” Ndeye explained. In addition, Gloria described, “It’s very upsetting when you are made to feel less than everyone else . . . it truly breaks my heart.”
And some who are on the receiving end of this dehumanizing term even begin to believe it: “If an individual repeatedly calls you a certain name time over time, there is a self-fulfilling prophecy element and you may start believing some, if not all of it.” Nga said. “Fortunately, I have a strong sense of self-identity and am not impacted by such debasing words.”
As the fight for a just immigration system presses on, these women are clear: the word is a harmful tool of racist systems that needs to be replaced.