Effort By Dartmouth Students To Abolish Term 'Illegal Alien' Gets Backlash In Congress

Jul 8, 2016

A debate in Congress over the term "illegal alien" has its roots at the campus of Dartmouth College. It all began when a group of students in 2014 petitioned the Library of Congress to abolish the term.

If you were searching any academic library in the country for information about people coming to the United States without documentation, any book you found would come under the subject heading "illegal alien."

That is what happened when Jill Baron, a Dartmouth librarian in romance languages, helped a student with a research paper in 2014.

From there, the students of CoFIRED — the Dartmouth Coalition for Immigration Reform, Equality and DREAMers — worked with Baron and others on campus to petition the Library of Congress to change that language.

They compiled research to support the argument that "illegal aliens" is no longer the commonplace term.

Baron cites reference materials from “the AP Style Book, [to] different newspapers that have decided to change their term, to different scholarly databases that no longer use the term illegal aliens as the controlled vocabulary.” 

It is not uncommon for the Library of Congress to change its subject headings; the heading "negro" was dropped in 1975. In 2007, the term "insane" was replaced with "mentally ill."

In March, the Library of Congress announced it intends to replace “illegal aliens” with two new terms: “noncitizens” and “unauthorized immigration.”

But in this political climate, not everyone agrees the Library of Congress should bow to the Dartmouth petition.

Rep. Diane Black from Tennessee has introduced a bill to prohibit the change.

In a written statement, the Republican lawmaker says illegal immigration threatens the country, and says Congress should not cave "to the whims of left wing special interests."

Several other Republican lawmakers, including Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, support her legislation.

Estefani Marin is one of the student activists at Dartmouth who was part of the original petition and push to remove the term "illegal aliens". “We felt as an organization that it was inaccurate language to label someone an illegal alien, because they aren't that,” she said. “Their actions were illegal and the act of doing what they did was [illegal], but that doesn't mean that we should label them an illegal alien.”

"Their actions were illegal and the act of doing what they did was [illegal], but that doesn't mean that we should label them an illegal alien." - Estefani Marin, Dartmouth student

Marin comes from a family with different levels of documentation to enter the United States. The idea of rejecting the commonly-used language is something she brought back to her family.

“You explain to them why these terms are no longer what we should be referring to ourselves as, and we have other colloquial terms to refer to someone who is undocumented,” she said. “It's the Spanish thing like, es mojado or no tienes papeles — he doesn't have papers.”

She continued: “But telling them and informing them of those changes is just kind of a different way of seeing ourselves. And you tell your parents, and they're like, 'Well wow, you're right, I just used it because the media uses it to refer to my status, and I don't have any other language.'”

Now, Rep. Black's bill is being taken to the House floor along with issues such as gun control and tax reform.

The debate has involved prominent politicians such as Florida Representative Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, who supports the language change. Recently she spoke to Congress on the issue.

“If those listening are wondering why we are talking about the pejorative term 'illegal aliens' on the bill that funds the legislative branch, then you are not alone,” she said. “The library changes thousands of subject headings each year without interference from Congress. Why this one? Why now?”

For now, despite the Dartmouth students' efforts, the term "illegal aliens" is still being used in the Library of Congress and in federal statutes. And the debate will continue in Washington.