The Words ‘Alien’ and ‘Assimilation’ Banned by the Biden Administration

A distraction that they want you to complain about, so you miss the real problems

By Andrew R. Arthur on April 20, 2021

On April 19, the Washington Post reported that the Biden administration has barred immigration enforcement agencies from “using terms such as ‘alien,’ ‘illegal alien’ and ‘assimilation’ when referring to immigrants in the United States”. It is a distraction, but a serious one.

The cheap and easy tack in responding to these changes is to reference Orwell, Kafka, or Humpty Dumpty, but that would elide the much obvious purpose behind these changes.

So that you can update your glossaries, however, “alien” is now “noncitizen or migrant”, “illegal” is “undocumented”, and in lieu of “assimilation”, the 46th president kindly asks you to use “integration”.

The Post contends that this is “a rebuke of terms widely used under the Trump administration” (you can’t really “rebuke” words, though that’s beside the point), but as I have previously explained, “alien” has been used in U.S. law since at least 1798, and “noncitizen” is particularly inapt because there are tens of thousands of American Samoans who are nationals of the United States but not citizens, and therefore aren’t subject to the immigration laws, either.

“Undocumented”? Most aliens in this country illegally have documents (birth certificates, passports, driver’s licenses) issued abroad, but those documents don’t allow them to live and work here, and those aliens are here in violation of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). Most illegal aliens also have documents to live and work here — they are just fraudulent or otherwise illegally possessed.

By the way, Trump was hardly the only offender. In a Supreme Court argument on November 30, for example, Chief Justice Roberts referred to “illegal aliens”, as did Justice Thomas, Justice Breyer, Justice Sotomayor, Justice Barrett, and Justice Alito. For good reason — everybody knows what it means, and “alien” is defined in the INA.

The “assimilation” change is a bit of a head scratcher. Merriam-Webster defines the term as “the process of receiving new facts or of responding to new situations in conformity with what is already available to consciousness”. One does not have to have grinded through years of philosophy to understand that this is a necessary process that humans have developed to survive.

I trust that there are commentators and websites out there that have perverted the term in one way or another (I really don’t care to check). Substituting that word with “integration”, however, is a neat trick of legerdemain.

Merriam-Webster defines the latter word as: “incorporation as equals into society or an organization of individuals of different groups”. Notice the difference? “Assimilation” places the burden on the individual (in this case, the alien), while “integration” places the burden on society as a whole (in this case, the body politic of the United States).

I personally have no strong opinion one way or the other, but civil-rights icon (and then-chairwoman of President Clinton’s Commission on Immigration Reform) Barbara Jordan offered up the term “Americanization” in an opinion piece she penned for the New York Times on September 11, 1995. She explained: “Americanization means becoming a part of the polity — becoming one of us.”

That term blends “assimilation” and “integration” in the immigration context. As Jordan explained:

Immigration imposes mutual obligations. Those who choose to come here must embrace the common core of American civic culture. We must assist them in learning our common language: American English. We must renew civic education in the teaching of American history for all Americans. We must vigorously enforce the laws against hate crimes and discrimination. We must remind ourselves, as we illustrate for newcomers, what makes us America.

All true, and respectfully, much more appropriate than the proposed Biden administration changes.

Back to my original point, however, the proposed changes are an example of what psychology terms “deflection”, which is roughly defined as “passing something over to someone else in an attempt to draw the attention away from yourself.” Deflection “is a psychological defense in which you deflect blame to others.”

In the context of the proposed linguistic changes, aliens who enter illegally are not to blame (they are not even “aliens” and their entry was not even “illegal”). They lack documents, which you refused to give them. And a “migrant” is a person on his or her way someplace else, not a person who made a volitional choice to violate our laws. Their failure — if any — to “integrate” is on you.

More importantly, however, these changes deflect attention from the administration’s failures to enforce the immigration laws.

With good reason. As I have noted in two separate posts (one on April 15 and one the next day), support for Biden and for congressional Democrats on immigration is slipping, particularly in key demographics and voting groups.

Most telling, an April 14 Quinnipiac poll shows that 55 percent of respondents disapprove of the way that the president is “handling the situation at the Mexican border”, as opposed to just 29 percent who approve (15 percent didn’t know or had no answer).

Younger Americans (aged 34 and younger) — whom one would assume to be more liberal than their beliefs—are more likely to disapprove of the job that Biden is doing at the border than their elders aged 65 and up (by a seven-point margin, 57 percent to 50 percent).

For good reason — the border is a mess, and the administration is floundering in its response.

But, the factors that encourage aliens to enter the United States illegally are complex and nuanced. You know what’s not complex and nuanced? Your opinion on whether it is better to call them “aliens”, “migrants”, or “noncitizens”. That’s less complicated than choosing between a Caesar salad and a cheeseburger at your local restaurant (and with fewer consequences for you directly).

That’s why they are pushing these changes now. The Biden administration wants the American people (and particularly the less intellectually disciplined and “politically correct” among them) to debate its change in nomenclature. It will inevitably cause further divisions, change the subject on immigration, and shift our focus from what are pretty real problems at the Southwest border.

Don’t fall for it.