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U.S. immigration agency removing term ‘alien’ from policy manual to ‘encourage more inclusive language’

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Officials with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services are reportedly planning to strike the word “aliens” from the policy manual roughly a year after the Trump administration ordered the term placed into the instructional publication.

Previously, the USCIS manual used the term “foreign national,” but then-acting department chief Ken Cuccinelli in the fall of 2019 ordered the term “alien” to be used instead,  Buzzfeed News reported, citing government documents. 

“The planned wording change is part of the Biden administration’s efforts to cut down on the use of the term ‘alien’ and alter the way immigrants are described by the federal government. The move also comes just weeks after agency officials directed leadership to no longer use the terminology in agency communications,” added the outlet on Tuesday..

The USCIS policy manual posted online contained more than 800 references to “foreign national” as well as 100-plus references to ‘aliens.’ After making changes under Cuccinelli’s tenure, the manual reportedly contained more than 1,700 references to “alien.”

Now, department officials are seeking to change ‘alien’ to “noncitizen” as often as possible, according to Buzzfeed News.

Trump administration officials defended the change to ‘alien’ at the time, saying it “proposes to use the legal term in the Immigration and Nationality Act.”

“It is important that our agency, which administers our nation’s lawful immigration system, align our internal materials with the INA,” a spokesperson for USCIS said in a statement at the time. “Under the INA, the term ‘alien’ means ‘any person not a citizen or national of the United States.’”

An agency spokesperson on Tuesday cited a February memo signed by acting USCIS director Tracy Renaud denoting that top agency officials should begin restricting their use of the term ‘alien.’  

“This change is designed to encourage more inclusive language in the agency’s outreach efforts, internal documents and in overall communication with stakeholders, partners, and the general public,” the spokesperson said. 

“The guidance does not affect legal, policy or other operational documents, including forms, where using terms (such as applicant, petitioner, etc.) as defined by the Immigration and Nationality Act would be the most appropriate,” the spokesperson added.

The February memo also noted that “inclusive language” such as “undocumented noncitizen” or “undocumented individual” will also be utilized. “Assimilation” will now be “integration” or “civic integration.”

Renaud reportedly sought to feature “more inclusive language in the agency’s outreach efforts, internal documents and in overall communication with stakeholders, partners and the general public.”

Not everyone agrees with the changes. 

“By statute, ‘alien’ literally means a person not a U.S. citizen or national. That is not offensive, and neither is ‘assimilation,’” Robert Law, a former Trump official who now works at the Center for Immigration Reform, told Axios last month.

In addition to changing the terminology in the federal level, states and localities have also been ditching the word “alien,” Buzzfeed News added. In 2015, then-California Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation striking the word from all state legal records. A lawmaker in Colorado attempted to introduce similar legislation in 2019.

And an immigration bill that would provide a path to citizenship for illegal aliens in the country introduced by President Joe Biden also strikes the word from federal documents.

Jon Dougherty

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