According to internal documents obtained by CNN, Jeff Sessions wants "illegal aliens," not "undocumented immigrants," to be the official term for citizens of other countries who are in the United States illegally. CNN reports that the Justice Department has instructed U.S. attorneys offices to use "illegal aliens" in press releases — a move almost certain to anger immigrants' rights groups, who have long argued that the term "illegal aliens" is a pejorative phrase intentionally used to paint immigrants in a negative light.
"When a defendant's illegal presence in the U.S. is an established fact in the public record, or when it has been provided to the court to help determine whether to detain a defendant, they should be referred to as an 'illegal alien,'" the Justice Department wrote in an email. "The word 'undocumented' is not based in U.S. code, and should not be used to describe someone's illegal presence in the country."
The linguistic debate over what to call non-citizens who are in a country illegally is almost as contentious as debates over immigration policy itself. Federal statutes use the word "alien" as a blanket term for any non-U.S. citizen — regardless of whether they are in the United States or not — and there are scattered references to "illegal aliens" in the U.S. code.
However, that term has largely fallen out of favor elsewhere. Critics have pointed out that describing human beings as "aliens" due to their country of birth is inherently dehumanizing, as it suggests that they are of another species, and thus functions more as an slur than a factual description. The word "alien" is also otherizing, in the most literal sense: The word "alien" comes from the Latin word meaning "of or belonging to others."
Similarly, using "illegal" as a descriptor for a person implies that their mere existence — rather than an action they've taken — is against the law; of course, this isn't the case, as no human being is illegal.
As such, both the New York Times and the Associated Press have stopped using the term "illegal alien." The AP updated its style guide in 2013 to clarify that its writers should "use 'illegal' only to refer to an action, not a person," and similarly, that they shouldn't refer a person as an "illegal." The Times also banned the use of "illegal" as a noun, as well as "alien," which it referred to as "sinister-sounding."
The term "alien" first appeared in the Naturalization Act of 1790 — which, ironically enough, defined an "alien" as a "free white person" from another country seeking citizenship in the United States. Currently, the word refers to any non-U.S. citizen. As CNN noted, the term "illegal immigrant" was first used in the 1930s as a pejorative term for Jews who entered Palestine without permission in order to escape Nazi persecution.
Broadly speaking, the term "illegal aliens" is more likely to be used by conservatives and others who view immigrants with skepticism, according to the Times, while progressives and those who view immigrants more sympathetically use the term "undocumented immigrants" or, less frequently, "unauthorized immigrants." This discrepancy can be seen in the Supreme Court, where liberal justices are less likely to use the term "aliens" than their conservative counterparts, as well as the language of think tanks, elected officials and candidates for office.
In 2015, California eliminated the use of "alien" in its Labor Code. House Democrats introduced a bill that same year that would have scrapped all references to "illegal aliens" in federal law, but Republican leadership never put the bill up for a vote.