One can only presume that when, in 1987, the British singer Sting described himself as an “Englishman in New York” — and a “legal alien” to boot — he did not set many eyes rolling. What a difference three decades make. For this innocuous, even quotidian observation, he would now be at risk of a visit from the language police. In 2014, such microaggressions are frowned upon, dear boy.
Displaying their unlovely penchant for censoring that which makes them uncomfortable or glum, a small but vocal contingent of progressives have responded to the crisis on the southern border by agitating against language. For a while now, the Left has expressed its discomfort with saddling those who are in the country illegally with the term “illegal”; more recently, the word “immigrant” has come under fire; and, as critics have grown more ambitious, the designation “alien” has been assaulted, too. Last week, my colleague Ryan Lovelace reports, even Immigration and Customs Enforcement started to shy away:
Word is spreading that federal officials may have banned the phrase “Unaccompanied Alien Children” from the federal lexicon because the term “alien” inappropriately identifies the illegal-immigrant children flooding across the border.
All told, this is a rather peculiar claim, for even the briefest of inquiries reveals that the term “alien” perfectly “identifies the illegal-immigrant children flooding across the border” — in fact, that it perfectly describes everybody who is present in the United States but is not a citizen. The United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) defines an “alien” uncommonly clearly, as “A person who is not a citizen or national of the United States.” Sitting minding your own business in St. Tropez, France? You’re an “alien.” Here on a student visa? Yes, you’re an “alien.” Snuck over the border from Canada? “Alien” again. There are no dog whistles here.
Moreover, by adopting and using the sobriquet, USCIS has set itself firmly within the etymological mainstream. “Alien” comes from the Latin word “alienus,” which means “stranger” or “foreigner.” So it is in English. Merriam-Webster submits that “alien” should be used to describe anybody “relating, belonging, or owing allegiance to another country or government” and offers up “foreign” as the most appropriate synonym. The Oxford English Dictionary concurs, proposing within its first definition that an “alien” is one “belonging to another person, place, or family; not of one’s own; from elsewhere, foreign.”
If we are to presume that there is a stigma attached to the word, then, we must surely apply that imputation to everybody who has ever come to these United States. Among the panoply of forms that USCIS offers on its website are a “Petition for Alien Relative,” a “Petition for Alien Fiancé(e),” an “Immigration Petition for Alien Worker,” an “Immigrant Petition by Alien Entrepreneur,” “Form AR-11, Alien’s Change of Address Card,” and an “Inter-Agency Alien Witness and Informant Record.” The term for anyone who is moving “in immediate and continuous transit through the United States, with or without a visa”? A “Transit Alien,” of course. Those who are merely visiting or are on temporary visas are “non-immigrant aliens,” while those who live here permanently are labeled “permanent resident aliens” and, until such time as they can be naturalized, are obliged to carry upon their persons small green cards with their “Alien Registration Number” emblazoned onto the front. All in all, the word appears more than 23,000 times on USCIS’s website, and 34 times just within its glossary. Should we not begin to wonder whether those objecting to the appellation are in fact objecting to the clarity of language itself? I am “resident” here, my residency is “permanent,” and, being currently a British and not an American citizen, I am an “alien.” The government thus describes me as a “permanent resident alien.” What, pray, is there to dislike?
Lamenting the manner in which we discuss immigration, the celebrity lawyer Gloria Allred has gone on record recommending that the word “alien” be applied only to those “from outer space.” Let us presume for the sake of a silly argument that we were to indulge her. What next? Unless we were also intending both to throw open the borders of the United States to all and sundry and to completely eliminate the distinction between citizens and non-citizens as well, we would be sorely in need of a new word to describe those who are physically present in the United States but who are not yet part of the American polity. This is a big, welcoming, and leveling sort of country, and one that exhibits a remarkable genius for assimilating people from all walks of life. But it is not so hot a melting pot that all who walk over its borders are immediately invited into the club. We do not invite holidaymakers enjoying their fortnight’s vacation to Disney World to vote in elections, serve on juries, and submit 1040s the following April. Given this, how might we describe their position?
Were we to grant Allred’s request, we would be depriving ourselves of a means by which to answer some important questions — among them, “Who here is expected to pay taxes?”; “Who must sign up for the draft?”; “Who may serve in government?”; and “In whose name is the government instituted?” In order to maintain the important distinctions that afford us the answers to these questions, we have elected to apply everyday words to the law and to the culture — words that include “legal” and “illegal”; “citizen” and “alien”; “resident” and “non-resident”; and “permanent” and “temporary.” One might well consider that, as it relates to immigration policy, the law is presently an ass. But to subordinate our language to that belief is infinitely more problematic. There is a reason that government in George Orwell’s 1984 heralded “Newspeak” as “the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year,” and that is that doing so allowed it to squeeze the nuance out of important discussions and to shrink the number of available thoughts that the citizenry might express. In other words, to circumvent and shut down debate.
All of which is to say that Gloria Allred and her sympathizers in ICE are not objecting to language but to the law, and that they hope that by confusing the former they can complicate and conquer the latter. On grounds both linguistic and political, I dissent proudly from this position. I am happy to be an “alien” because I appreciate that the word “citizen” carries with it something that is worthwhile and aspirational — and that I do not yet enjoy its imprimatur. “Being a citizen of the United States,” Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall has written, “isn’t just a matter of carrying a US passport or being able to vote, it’s much more foundational than that”:
To me, thick citizenship is really at the root of our equality as Americans. The mix of rights and responsibilities that come with it are what makes the Salvadoran immigrant every bit as much an American as someone whose ancestors have been here for centuries. We’re all equal because we’ve all made the same commitment as citizens.
I agree with every syllable of this — and more besides. America being as much an idea as a people, citizenship here implies a great number of virtues, among them patience, love, fealty, commitment, respect, reverence for tradition, and a willingness to agglutinate oneself to a set of timeless, almost empyrean values. I do not wish to see my position as an “alien” elevated above its rightful station for precisely the same reason that, in three years, one month, and seven days, when I will finally be eligible, I will not wish to see my position as a “citizen” diluted. Words have meaning; ideas need words; and the integrity of the beautiful American project relies heavily upon them both.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.