The Corner

Law & the Courts

When a ‘Common Misconception’ Is True

The other day I was editing an item about New York City’s new guideline that the use of the term “‘illegal alien’ . . . with intent to demean, humiliate, or harass” is illegal. I was under the impression that the term is used in federal law.

Googling it later, I found a recent Chicago Tribune article that says my impression was wrong. Reports Cindy Dampier:

Claire Thomas, a professor in immigration law and director of the Asylum Clinic at New York Law School, . . . points out another common misconception: That the term is used in statutes and in legal circles. “The term illegal alien isn’t a term that comes up in our laws,” she says, noting that it does appear very rarely in pieces of federal legislation. “However, the term ‘alien’ is in our statutes, and you will hear people referred to as ‘the alien,’ when you are representing them.”

This is a little odd on its face. How can it be a “misconception” that the term is used in statutes, and how can it be true that it “isn’t a term that comes up in our laws,” when it “does appear,” albeit rarely, “in pieces of federal legislation”? Is the idea that it appears in legislation that has not passed, but does not appear in the U.S. Code? If so, the idea is wrong. The term appears several times in the code, as this blogpost notes. See, for example, 8 USC 1365, helpfully titled, “Reimbursement of States for costs of incarcerating illegal aliens and certain Cuban nationals.”

Update: A reader notifies me that the Tribune has changed the text so that the “common misconception” is now that the term is “frequently” used in statutes and legal circles. The quote claiming that “illegal alien isn’t a term that comes up in our laws” is still there.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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