Biden Wants ‘Aliens’ to be ‘Noncitizens’

A change to the language is being proposed as part of a sweeping immigration overhaul.

CNN reports “Biden wants to remove this controversial word from US laws.”

It’s just one small part of the sweeping immigration overhaul President Biden is pushing.

But the symbolic significance is huge.

Biden’s proposed bill, if passed, would remove the word “alien” from US immigration laws, replacing it with the term “noncitizen.”

It’s a deliberate step intended to recognize America as “a nation of immigrants,” according to a summary of the bill released by the new administration.

The term “illegal alien,” long decried as a dehumanizing slur by immigrant rights advocates, became even more of a lightning rod during the Trump era — with some top federal officials encouraging its use and several states and local governments taking up measures to ban it.

“The language change on the first day of this administration, with Kamala Harris the daughter of immigrants, to me it’s not just symbolic…it’s foundational,” says Jose Antonio Vargas, an undocumented immigrant whose organization, Define American, pushes for more accurate portrayals of immigrants.

“How we describe people really sticks. It affects how we treat them,” he says. “How we talk about immigrants shapes the policies. It frames what are the issues really at stake here. It acknowledges that we’re talking about human beings and families.”

While I get the intent here, it’s rather silly. “Alien” is a perfectly good legal word that means “foreign” or “from another place.” To the extent that science fiction movies have made it mean “from outer space” to some people is rather amusing but I don’t think anyone thinks “illegal aliens” are from another planet.

I have no strong objection to changing the language if people find it offensive. But the problem with “noncitizen” is that it’s simply inaccurate. Everyone is a citizen of somewhere.

Similarly, “undocumented immigrant” shifts the focus away from the fact that said people are in the country in violation of our immigration laws. Indeed, quite a number of them have documents, albeit forged ones, in order to be able to work.

The good news, at least, is that this proposal is for an actual law that would be debated by both Houses of Congress and have the permanence that comes with that, rather than an executive proclamation that can be overturned by the next guy.

FILED UNDER: Borders and Immigration, Congress, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Not the IT Dept. says:

    “Alien” is also a word that implies something is threatening and dangerous – there’s a whole movie franchise based on the concept.

    “Noncitizen” is a neutral word that states the legal situation and is a reminder that they are people who are in the process of becoming citizens.

    Something that Americans have been quite willing to forget when it suits certain politicians to whip up fear and anger against people who weren’t born here. As if all of us aren’t descended from noncitizens at some point in our family history.

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  2. While I get the intent here, it’s rather silly. “Alien” is a perfectly good legal word that means “foreign” or “from another place.” To the extent that science fiction movies have made it mean “from outer space” to some people is rather amusing but I don’t think anyone thinks “illegal aliens” are from another planet.

    Clearly, no one (well, almost no one) thinks they are from another planet, “alien” however, does has clear connotations of “other” and “threat.”

    And I think that that is a good idea.

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  3. @Not the IT Dept.: I see you beat me to that basic point. I concur that “noncitizen” has a more neutral connotation.

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  4. Bob@Youngstown says:

    But the problem with “noncitizen” is that it’s simply inaccurate. Everyone is a citizen of somewhere.

    However, in the context of a United States bill / law, “non-citizen” clearly refers to the relationship to the United States. US citizenship. IMO, “non-citizen” is actually very accurate.

    Were the bill / law being written to regulate the global community, I’d agree with your objection.

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  5. sam says:

    I’m pretty sure that Ted Cruz is an alien, albeit a citizen.

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  6. James Joyner says:

    @Not the IT Dept.:

    “Noncitizen” is a neutral word that states the legal situation and is a reminder that they are people who are in the process of becoming citizens.

    But, absent an amnesty bill, none of those now referred to as “illegal aliens” are in the process of becoming citizens. That’s what makes them illegal.

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I concur that “noncitizen” has a more neutral connotation.

    I agree that “illegal alien” has a negative connotation; I’ve always viewed other forms, such as “resident alien,” as perfectly neutral. But “noncitizen” actually strikes me as dismissive, denying that citizenship from the other 194 countries counts.

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  7. Sleeping Dog says:

    The good news, at least, is that this proposal is for an actual law that would be debated by both Houses of Congress and have the permanence that comes with that, rather than an executive proclamation that can be overturned by the next guy

    Agreed, which brings us to this conundrum; @Sleeping Dog:

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  8. Jim Brown 32 says:

    These are the types of quixotic plays that really make the non-politically engaged cynical of the point of voting/politics. If one has to expend political capital–it should actually be to achieve a policy outcome. Im sure this is an extremely low priority for Biden himself but still.

    In 5 years–“noncitizen” will have an negative connotation as the RW will recast it that way. Then what? You don’t have to cede linguistic territory to an waste energy finding new ways to name an orange.

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  9. SKI says:

    But the problem with “noncitizen” is that it’s simply inaccurate. Everyone is a citizen of somewhere.

    This isn’t true. It isn’t remotely true. There are people who are stateless. In fact there are millions of them. See UNHCR’s page on this issue.

    Further, the concept of “illegal alien” is problematic in that it strips them of their humanity. A person isn’t “illegal”.

    When you speed, are you an illegal driver?

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  10. SKI says:

    @James Joyner:

    But, absent an amnesty bill, none of those now referred to as “illegal aliens” are in the process of becoming citizens. That’s what makes them illegal.

    No, it makes them subject to possible criminal penalties or deportation. It doesn’t render them illegal.

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  11. @James Joyner:

    But “noncitizen” actually strikes me as dismissive, denying that citizenship from the other 194 countries counts.

    But contextually is it not clear that they are noncitizens of the US rather than persons without a country writ large?

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  12. Not the IT Dept. says:

    @James Joyner: But, absent an amnesty bill, none of those now referred to as “illegal aliens” are in the process of becoming citizens. That’s what makes them illegal.

    Well, they came here to become citizens and we should get on with it and let them complete their personal journeys to become Americans. Keeping them id’ed as illegal aliens simply brings out our worst sadistic instincts to punish and lash out at perceived threats. As Americans they can contribute to our society and economy, and are an asset to us.

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  13. MarkedMan says:

    @Bob@Youngstown: I second this. I’ve been a non-citizen resident of two foreign countries and we called ourselves either that or “temporary residents” (neither country had a path to citizenship for non-natives). And, with some variation, it’s what the governments called us. We never referred to ourselves as “resident aliens”.

    Personally, I don’t think it makes much difference, but I try to defer to what people actually want to be called. But it can get old. The core problem
    is that people are disparaging n0n-citizens and changing what they are called won’t alter that.

    I just sat in on a conversation with some of my co-workers. Three of them were born in other countries, although they are citizens now. (One just became a citizen last Friday!) They all had multiple stories about people out of nowhere telling them to “go back where you came from”. This wasn’t even people they were interacting with. Just randos. So the idea that changing the name of a group is going to make these ignorant yahoos have second thoughts seems futile.

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  14. James Joyner says:

    @SKI:

    There are people who are stateless.

    Fair enough, although that’s not what’s in play here.

    @SKI:

    When you speed, are you an illegal driver?

    Yes.

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    But contextually is it not clear that they are noncitizens of the US rather than persons without a country writ large?

    In the context of the bill, sure. But it would be a weird way to use ordinary language.

    @Not the IT Dept.:

    Well, they came here to become citizens

    Many if not most of them came to improve their economic circumstances. Regardless, the notion that economic migrants simply have a right to a path to citizenship based on their own desires not the modern state of play pretty much anywhere you’d want to live.

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  15. SKI says:

    @James Joyner:

    @SKI:

    When you speed, are you an illegal driver?

    Yes.

    Bullshit. You are a person driving illegally. There is a major semantic difference that has real world effect.

    No one *ever* calls someone who speeds an “illegal driver”.

    I don’t know why you are dying on this hill but you are dying…

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  16. MarkedMan says:

    @Jim Brown 32:

    In 5 years–“noncitizen” will have an negative connotation as the RW will recast it that way

    There was an old Bloom County comic that had one of the characters correcting his elderly mother when she referred to “colored peope”. She then cycled through the list of a half of dozen terms has arisen and fallen since “colored” was the preferred descriptor. Finally, exasperated , she asked what term she should use. “People of color, mom.” “SEE!”, she yelled, “That’s what I said! Colored People!”

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  17. Not the IT Dept. says:

    @James Joyner:

    “Many if not most of them came to improve their economic circumstances.”

    Yes, and how can do that without becoming citizens?

    “Regardless, the notion that economic migrants simply have a right to a path to citizenship based on their own desires not the modern state of play pretty much anywhere you’d want to live.”

    Oh baloney. People go through established processes all over the world when they want to become citizens of adopted countries. No one on this thread says they should just become citizens by crossing the border. This phony “argument” has nothing to do with the point of this thread which started out discussing semantics.

    You’re doing that thing again when you double and triple down on your arguments because something something something blah blah blah. So far no one has agreed with you and you’re not going to change that by huffing at us.

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  18. Michael Reynolds says:

    In my lifetime we’ve labeled a portion of the population negro, colored, black, afro-american, African-American, Person of Color and Black with a capital ‘B.’

    And yet George Floyd was choked out on the street, murdered by police.

    It’s not the word, it’s the idea behind it, the intent and the interpretation.

    @Jim Brown 32:

    In 5 years–“noncitizen” will have an negative connotation as the RW will recast it that way. Then what? You don’t have to cede linguistic territory to an waste energy finding new ways to name an orange.

    Bingo.

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  19. Gustopher says:

    @SKI: But, when someone doesn’t have a license — perhaps it was taken away for driving drunk — and they are driving (under the speed limit), I would call them an illegal driver.

    Speeding just doesn’t count — everyone does it.

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  20. Gustopher says:

    @Jim Brown 32:

    In 5 years–“noncitizen” will have an negative connotation as the RW will recast it that way. Then what? You don’t have to cede linguistic territory to an waste energy finding new ways to name an orange.

    And “noncitizen” is a word that really doesn’t need negative connotations. Does the constitution protect noncitizens? Yes. Will we have to keep fighting that battle more often if “noncitizen” has become a slur? Also yes.

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  21. SKI says:

    @Gustopher: Have you ever actually ever used that formulation? I seriously doubt it. You would say they were driving illegally.

    Do a google search for “illegal driver” and the results – all of the results – relate to golf clubs.

    Add in “license” to the search and you start to see some results – all of which talk about undocumented citizens driving as “illegal drivers”.

    Literally no one calls people driving illegally, either through speeding or for suspended licenses (of whatever reason), “illegal drivers”. We recognize their humanity and that that single act doesn’t totally define them. We don’t “other” them.

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  22. Joe says:

    @MarkedMan:

    They all had multiple stories about people out of nowhere telling them to “go back where you came from”.

    A friend of mine whose parents immigrated from the Philippines related a disturbing, but also slightly humorous story about her sister being accosted by some rando while her sister had her hearing aids off. She thought the stranger was yelling about something she was doing, but when she turned on her hearing aids, she realized the he was screaming at her to go back to where she came from and she looked at him quizically and said, “Joliet?”

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  23. James Joyner says:

    @SKI:

    No one *ever* calls someone who speeds an “illegal driver”.

    Ah. No, that’s true. We refer to people who commit more major crimes as “criminals” or by more specific names but, no, we don’t do it with those who commit more minor infractions.

    @Not the IT Dept.:

    No one on this thread says they should just become citizens by crossing the border. This phony “argument” has nothing to do with the point of this thread which started out discussing semantics.

    I was responding to your suggestion that “Well, they came here to become citizens and we should get on with it and let them complete their personal journeys to become Americans.”

    @Michael Reynolds:

    It’s not the word, it’s the idea behind it, the intent and the interpretation.

    Agreed.

    I’m not inherently opposed to changing the language, but I don’t think it’ll do much. But, honestly, I’m not convinced that descriptions of those who are here in violation of our laws shouldn’t have some negative connotations. The problem, of course, is that we don’t call Canadians or Irishmen who have overstayed their visas “illegal aliens.” We mostly, if not exclusively, think of brown people when we use that terminology.

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  24. MarkedMan says:

    @James Joyner:

    We refer to people who commit more major crimes as “criminals”

    I honestly can’t remember where this battle ended up but up until Trump coming to the country illegally or overstaying a legal visa was not a criminal offense, just a civil one. Trump and the Stephen Miller crowd were working hard to make them actual criminals. Without, of course, making the people who hired them actual criminals.

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  25. SKI says:

    @James Joyner:

    Ah. No, that’s true. We refer to people who commit more major crimes as “criminals” or by more specific names but, no, we don’t do it with those who commit more minor infractions.

    After they have been tried and convicted. And we do it in large part to segregate them from the rest of society. We define them as outside of society. And it is based on something they did – not who they are.

    Doing that to a child who was brought here as a child is inhumane.

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  26. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @MarkedMan: Bwahahahaha!

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  27. Mu Yixiao says:

    @SKI:

    Someone living without a lease is an illegal tenant. It’s not a legal term, but it’s one in common use.

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  28. Nightcrawler says:

    “Alien” is an archaic term. It’s like calling infertile women “barren” or calling black people “colored.”

    I agree that “noncitizen” isn’t the correct word. I think “undocumented immigrant” is fine.

    While you could call an unlicensed driver an “illegal driver,” it’s not a term that’s in common use. Nor have I ever heard someone who practices or dispenses medicine without a license called an “illegal doctor/pharmacist.” From a purely grammatical standpoint, the word “illegal” isn’t incorrect, but again, it’s not in common use.

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  29. Nightcrawler says:

    @Mu Yixiao:

    I’ve never heard the term “illegal tenant.” Living in a unit without a lease isn’t illegal. After our lease expired in Florida, the slumlord never bothered renewing it, but he didn’t kick us out, either. We kept paying him, and he accepted it. That’s completely legal. It’s not wise, but it’s legal.

    What you’re referring to is someone living in a unit without the landlord’s authorization. I suppose you could call them an “illegal tenant,” but I’ve always heard them referred to as “squatters.”

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  30. Mu Yixiao says:

    @Nightcrawler:

    I’ve heard the term used on a fair number of occasions. And while it can refer to squatters, it’s more often referring to someone who moved in with another person, while not informing the landlord (and signing onto the lease). Or to someone involved in an illegal sublet. These can be considered fraud or “theft of services”.

    I’ve also heard it used to refer to someone is renting a room where renting isn’t allowed (e.g., in violation of occupancy laws).

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  31. Mu Yixiao says:

    @Nightcrawler:

    From a quick google:

    “How must Landlord prove an “Illegal Tenant” exists in my apartment?”
    “Please help evict my illegal tenant”
    “Legal vs. Illegal Tenants”
    ““There are two ways of going into court,” Strasberg says. “One is to go into housing court to evict the illegal tenant…”

    etc.

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  32. Mu Yixiao says:

    @Nightcrawler:

    Oh… and as for “illegal driver”:

    “Illegal Driver Arrested on Warrant and License Expired for …”
    “K9 nips illegal driver ”
    “”Judge Judy” Dog Custody/Roommate Dispute/Illegal Driver ”
    “as if you were essentially buying liability insurance for that unknown illegal driver” (from a lawyer’s website)

    And plenty more.

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  33. Gustopher says:

    @SKI:

    We recognize their humanity and that that single act doesn’t totally define them. We don’t “other” them.

    Referencing someone as a driver, legal or illegal, doesn’t dehumanize them. Driver is a subset of human. Like immigrant, alien, transperson, Republican, etc.

    (Ok, Republican is sort of dehumanizing)

    Sometimes the renaming of things makes sense — either it was considered appropriate in the past to use a racial slur, or the term is so antiquated that it has lost all connection to reality. But often, it is just an effort to say “we’re better that those people who still call covert foreign-born laborers ‘illegal immigrants.’ what monsters those troglodytes are to use such antiquated, offensive words.”

    I’m in favor of removing gendered slurs like “bitch” (even when applied to a man, as a verb, i.e., “George was bitching about such-and-such,” it suggests that the man is bad because he is acting like a woman. But I don’t see that here. The bad thing isn’t affected by language — you’re either ok with people circumventing our laws to come here and work, or you aren’t, and the wording isn’t going to change that (assuming we don’t actually add unrelated slurs and start saying something like “they jewed their way around the laws…”)

    “Illegal immigrant” is fine — we’re a country of immigrants, and laws were made to be broken. “Illegal alien” if you want to invoke Superman. Unofficially Documented or Undocumented Noncitizen is technically correct, but just confusing and pointless like “Person of Foreign or No Citizenship Lacking Official Residency Status”.

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  34. Gustopher says:

    I don’t like the popular use of “Karen”, since I’ve seen so many men do the same things. That’s language that adds a whole set of misogynistic interpretations on top of a very different phenomena.

    We don’t have a lot of masculine names that get that treatment — you will sometimes hear of the NY Times sending reporters out on a “Cletus Safari” to interview Trump supporters. And the patrons of prostitutes are Johns but in the that case it’s at least true that 99% of the patrons of prostitutes are men.

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  35. Mu Yixiao says:

    @Gustopher:

    Out of curiosity, what do you think of the term “man-splaining”?

    I ask because I see so much of the same behavior coming from women (primarily in health care), though it carries a touch more “you’re just a toddler” tinge.

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  36. Raoul says:

    Language has power (ask Frank Luntz) and how we refer to people matters. Since language is always shifting some terms we used in the past are no longer acceptable. There really no surprise that the term alien has become a perojative and it is time to replace it. I have always preferred undocumented immigrants and fake papers does not make one documented (what a dumb argument).

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  37. Joe says:

    @Gustopher:
    A male “Karen” is a “Ken” or at least that’s what I commonly see, I concede, however, it appears to be a manufactured masculine translation of a female trope.

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  38. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Gustopher:
    You’re engaging in magical thinking. Changing the word we call a thing changes neither the thing nor how we think about it. How many titles have we had for garbage men? I don’t even remember most of them, hence: garbage men. Garbage people? Trash collectors? Sanitation engineers? Kings of the Can? Boss o’ Bins?

    I went through this with ‘waiter’ vs. ‘server’ and somehow during the transition waiters ended up even lower status and making less money. Maybe, ‘food delivery professional’ will get them above minimum wage. How about, ‘Sultan of comestibles?’ ‘Emperor of All the Lands Between Kitchen and Table?’

    It doesn’t work. It never has worked. It never will work. It’s stupid and annoying and accomplishes absolutely nothing other than irritating the fuck out of people so that self-important can have a moment of unearned moral ascendancy.

    TL;DR: Don’t tell me what words to use.

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  39. @MarkedMan:

    I’ve been a non-citizen resident of two foreign countries and we called ourselves either that or “temporary residents” (neither country had a path to citizenship for non-natives). And, with some variation, it’s what the governments called us. We never referred to ourselves as “resident aliens”.

    An interesting point. When I lived in Colombia, I believe my ID card indicated that I was an “Extranjeno” (foreign), IIRC. Collectively if we talked about non-Colombians living in the city, we used the term “expats” (expatriots) more likely than not. We certainly never referred to ourselves or others as “aliens” resident or not.

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  40. Pylon says:

    @MarkedMan:

    I believe that simply being in the US without the proper authority (eg. overstaying a visa) is not a criminal offence. Crossing the border illegally is a criminal offence. I also recall that the vast majority of cases are the former.

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  41. Gustopher says:

    @Mu Yixiao:

    Out of curiosity, what do you think of the term “man-splaining”?

    One of the highlights of my previous job was the day that the two young women next to me had been chattering all day about mansplaining, and then asked me how to use the UNIX tool grep.

    I said that they should go to the terminal and type “man grep” and it would explain everything (it prints out the manual page for the grep command). I was so happy.

    That said, people in my industry ignore women all the fucking time, or explain things that the women obviously already know… mansplaining is real.

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  42. Gustopher says:

    @Michael Reynolds: I think you were just skimming and missing my point.

    There are very few times that it makes sense to rename something — only when the current term adds a new offensive meaning.

    Garbage men are garbage men, except when they are garbage women or garbage enbies, but we will cross that bridge when we come to it. (I can absolutely see a woman being upset with the implications that there is something unfeminine about hauling around large, heavy cans of garbage and something wrong with a woman who can do it)

    Illegal immigrant seems fine to me — it describes, quickly, who and what it refers to, and it doesn’t ascribe additional negative connotations to them. Illegal alien is about the same — more antiquated language, but also more inclusive since many of the people in our country illegally are not intending to stay, just to make some money and go back home, so they aren’t immigrants at all.

    When my brother mentions the “bunch of illegal wetbacks by the Home Depot”… that’s adding a racial slur, plus he’s probably wrong about how they crossed the border, and they’re definitely at a Lowe’s.

    It’s blurry when terms that were perfectly fine a few decades ago are offensive now. See the 23 different words for black folks and the dozen different words for trans folks (and I bet that within 10 years, “transgender” will be offensive because the key part of the new-name experience is that they were always that, not the transformation). Said enough times with enough venom and hatred, even a polite word like “negro” will acquire some of that venom — I suspect they just need a fresh word every 20 years, one that can start out unsullied by Stephen Miller saying it.

    Meanwhile LatinX is just dumb, unless it’s a new member of the X-Men.

    “Karen” is just sexist shit though, and should be called out as such.

    Anyway, they’re illegal immigrants, and you were a serving wench.

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  43. wr says:

    @Jim Brown 32: “These are the types of quixotic plays that really make the non-politically engaged cynical of the point of voting/politics.”

    Words matter. This is why Frank Luntz and Newt Gingrich spent the 90s relabelling things. You think that changing “inheritance tax” to “death tax” was just for the convenience of sparing a few syllables?

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  44. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Jim Brown 32:

    In 5 years–“noncitizen” will have an negative connotation as the RW will recast it that way. Then what?

    Exactly! The plan is to switch from “illegal aliens” to “illegal noncitizens” as the dehumanizing slur? Okay boomer (actually silent, in Biden’s case), if that what you want…

    The only point where I differ from you is that it won’t take 5 years–2, 3 at the outside.

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  45. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Mu Yixiao: The term where I live is “squatter.”

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  46. gVOR08 says:

    @sam:

    I’m pretty sure that Ted Cruz is an alien, albeit a citizen.

    He’s not an alien. By virtue of his mother’s US citizenship he’s a natural born, albeit in Canada, U. S. citizen lizard person.

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  47. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Joe: I’ve always thought that they were “Kevins,” but that comes from a First Dog on the Moon cartoon where Mr. Dog refers to such people as “Qarens” and “Qevins” because it doesn’t seem fair to single out people just for having a “K” in their names.

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  48. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: When I was in Korea, the card said (in English) “Alien Registration Card” and in Korean “Oeguk-in Deung Lok Jeung.” We usually called ourselves “expats” and Koreans tended to call us “foreigners” when speaking English.

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  49. Kurtz says:

    @Michael Reynolds: @Jim Brown 32:

    If language didn’t matter, then why does the wing nut circuit work so hard to rebrand their targets? Why wouldn’t they just say illegal immigrants? Why suddenly turn it into “illegals?”

    You both know why, because an immigrant is a person, an ‘illegal’ is merely an object.

    I would be with you if it was a resolution that only changed the language used and did nothing. But it’s not. It’s part of a comprehensive overhaul package. The former would be the rare instances one could correctly call out as virtue signaling.

    Michael, you’re tl;dr seems a little strong…justifies some pretty nasty shit.

    Also, when either of you have a thought without language, let me know. Then, we can all agree that words don’t matter at all.

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  50. Gustopher says:

    @gVOR08:

    He’s not an alien. By virtue of his mother’s US citizenship he’s a natural born, albeit in Canada, U. S. citizen lizard person.

    We do not formally recognize the rights of lizard people in this country.

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