I grew up in the United Arab Emirates, a country where citizens make up only 11% of the population. I am part of the remaining 89%. We are called “expatriates.” The word originates from Latin “expatriat,” which means “leave one’s own country.” A very straightforward descriptor for non-citizens in my view.
By contrast, when I first entered the United States, I was labeled an “alien.” When most people think of aliens, they likely think of E.T. or the Roswell incident. They think of otherworldly beings. Yet, American immigration law refers to non-citizens as “aliens.” The word originates from Latin alienus, which means “belonging to another,” but also means “unfriendly, inimical, hostile, suspicious.”
When other descriptors exist, why persist with a word like alien? The intent is clear: othering, alienation and dehumanization.
The dehumanization of certain immigrants and non-citizens is the norm in the U.S. A single article isn’t enough to capture dehumanization across racial groups. I’ve chosen to focus on Asians, the group I identify with.
While millions of predominantly white people were welcomed into the country at Ellis Island many years ago, Asians faced despicable discrimination. This is best outlined in “Race, Rights and the Asian American Experience” by Angelo Ancheta.
According to Ancheta, Chinese immigrants came to the U.S. in the 1840s to work as miners and laborers. They built American railroads, but anti-Asian sentiment brewed as a result. Nativist political parties and unions held anti-Chinese sentiments. This opposition to Chinese people resulted in the discriminatory Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
The law prohibited all immigration of Chinese people for 10 years. It also made Chinese people ineligible for naturalization. The law built off the Page Act of 1875, which prohibited “importation of unfree laborers and women brought for ‘immoral purposes,’” but was enforced mainly on the Chinese.
While the Chinese were dealt with this way, other Asian groups were not left behind. The only instance of inclusivity in that era was in discrimination. If the Chinese were barred from immigrating, why not exclude other Asians too? To that end, the Japanese and Korean Exclusion League was formed in 1905. This organization was later renamed the Asiatic Exclusion League. Their goal was simple: preserving the “Caucasian race upon American soil.”
According to Ancheta, the organization blamed anti-Asian violence on Asians. This tactic is used even today on minority groups. The organization cited the “insolence and presumption of the Japanese” and “immodest and filthy habits of the Hindoos” as reasons the “orientals” were to blame. The organization got its wish with the passage of the Immigration Act of 1917. The law barred immigration from the Asia-Pacific, among other things.
Asians who were in the country prior to exclusionary legislation did not have it any better — they faced riots and discrimination. Chinatowns (and other similar enclaves) celebrated in pop culture today were born out of discriminatory housing policies.
Furthermore, pathways to citizenship for Asians in the U.S. were heavily curtailed. Asian communities were deprived of naturalization rights. Even birthright citizenship was cast in doubt, until the Supreme Court intervened in 1898. However, the Supreme Court should not be seen as faultless.
Naturalized citizenship was only for “free white persons.” The Supreme Court enforced this racial standard on multiple occasions. Even citizens of Asian descent were not afforded the rights they deserved. This is best exemplified by the internment of Japanese Americans in concentration camps during World War II.
The passage of the Immigration Act of 1965 marked the end of legally enshrined discrimination Asians faced based on race. The law resulted in an influx of Asians to the U.S., primarily as skilled workers and reunited family members.
The law did not end all discrimination, however. What remains today is subtler but still insidious.
Language continues to be weaponized, driving a rise in hate crimes. In 2021, the Biden administration took a small step in the right direction. The administration shunned the use of “alien,” and advised agencies to use “non-citizen” wherever possible. However, the word remains part of the American lexicon, used almost exclusively to denigrate.
The weaponization of language by Republicans originates from a playbook by communications advisor Frank Luntz for 2006. Luntz advised party members on word choices to boost public perception. When talking about immigration, he suggested using “illegal aliens” over “undocumented immigrants.” Luntz also suggested using “border security” over “immigration reform.” The intent behind these choices was to frame non-citizens as threats. “Securing our borders and our people has universal support,” Luntz wrote. Luntz turned critical of Republicans 2016 onwards, but has continued working with them. The damaging rhetoric persists.
Examining all this information made me reflect on my experiences. I’ve largely avoided overt racism – the kind Asians faced after 9/11 or at the height of COVID-19. However, I have witnessed subtleties. I have been in spaces — both virtual and in person — where I have felt invisible. Like a traffic cone people walk around. The only person whose name is too hard to grasp. I have worked twice as hard only to receive half the plaudits. I have been denied opportunities because of my identity, an identity I have no control over.
The semantics of immigration today are a stark reminder of darker times. A part of the racial undertones that continue to exist. Words matter. Actions matter. Much still needs to be done, which seems increasingly unlikely in the face of political inaction and increased hostility.
I am no alien, even if it can feel that way sometimes. I am a human, just like you. Actions and language must now reflect this.
Anupras is currently on the editorial board and served as an Opinion editor in 2020. He is a senior studying Computer Science and Journalism. Do you think the use of language like ‘alien’ is dehumanizing? Send all comments to firstname.lastname@example.org