On Monday, April 19, 2021 – nearly three months following his inauguration as the 46th President of the United States – Joe Biden issued a memo directing the nation’s two largest immigration enforcement agencies, Customs and Border Protection, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement to use the words “non-citizen” or “migrant” moving forward – a historic deviation from the use of more disparaging words.

The move, while highly criticized by some politicians, aimed at replacing longtime used words like “illegal aliens” or “aliens” when referring to migrants; such terms have been used to talk about foreigners for just about as long as the U.S. has been a country. Non-citizens include immigrants who are in the country without authorization; millions of authorized permanent residents, also known as “green-card” holders, and visitors arriving on visas for tourism or work.

"The U.S., as a political strategy, has always relied on the anxiety of foreign influence or even foreign invasion to tightly control who belongs and who doesn’t. The popularity of alien films and television is fairly new compared to the political strategy in the U.S." - Dr. Michael Lechuga, UNM assistant professor

At the time of the president’s announcement, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif, tweeted: “President Biden is more concerned about Border Patrol’s vocabulary than he is about solving the border crisis. These backwards priorities are only making the situation worse.”

But as UNM Communication and Journalism Assistant Professor Michael Lechuga shares in the history that follows, WORDS MATTER.

a·li·en | /ˈālēən/
Relating to or denoting beings supposedly from other worlds; extraterrestrial.

The meaning, for years, has superseded any mention of an extraterrestrial; instead, most commonly, when individuals refer to an “alien,” they’re referring to someone belonging to a foreign country or nation. It’s a term, Lechuga says, that dates back to turn of the 19th century, when the Federalist-controlled congress passed a set of laws that later came to be known as the Alien and Sedition Acts. These acts targeted new immigrants entering the U.S., including those from countries like France and allies of France, delaying or even rejecting them from obtaining citizenship. Lechuga says this was a way for the Federalist government to limit the influx of new citizens, while keeping the citizenry of the U.S. homogeneous—mostly folks from Northwestern Europe who had a specific ethnic and racial commonality (whiteness). The acts were also a way for the Federalists to associate the Democratic-Republican Party with foreigners and outsiders.

“In many ways, the fear of ‘aliens’ was built into our early political divides in order to show distrust in politicians who were welcoming of diverse migration,” Lechuga said.

Lechuga researches rhetoric, migration studies and media studies. His upcoming book, “Alien Affects: Settler Citizenship and Technologies of Visibility” looks at the development of "alien" invasion cinema in the U.S., as part of a larger, anti-immigrant national sentiment that is rooted in settler colonialism.

Assistant Prof. Michael Lechuga

“I am interested in how the figure of the ‘alien’ was created in popular media and in immigration policy to perpetuate a colonial fiction about race in the United States, namely that somehow the descendants of white-European colonizers are native to North America,” he said. “In other words, today's U.S. immigration policy and today's ‘alien’ invasion films are both narrative myths that try to create a subjective 'alien' which is made out to be a threat to American citizens.”

For years, in the U.S., the term “alien” continued to be used to identify and isolate specific groups of migrants. Lechuga says by the end of the 19th century, the U.S. had reimagined the term to label Chinese migrants to the U.S.; in the language of the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), Chinese migrants were labeled as “permanent aliens,” meaning that under the law, they would never be eligible to obtain U.S. citizenship. Today, “alien” and especially “illegal alien” refers to mostly Latinx/Mestizx and Asian communities in the country who have entered the U.S. without authorization or who have overstayed their visa.

Lechuga said there is a common misconception that most unauthorized migrants cross the desert and enter along the border with México. In reality, most unauthorized migrants in the U.S. arrived on a visa but didn’t return to their home country after its expiration.

In 2015, Rep. Joaquín Castro, D-Texas, introduced legislation to strike the words "alien" and "illegal alien" from federal law, as well as from federal signs and literature. At this year’s legislative session Castro reintroduced the bill, known as the CHANGE Act.

As for its use, Lechuga said the current political sentiment around the word “alien” is still mixed.


“In many ways, relying on a dehumanizing term like this allows political figures to erase the experiences of migrants who are fleeing nationalist violence, climate catastrophe and economic despair,” he said. “I also think that this strategy has been part of the U.S. political history since the start of the U.S.”

Lechuga’s work also looks at the popular culture representation of the word “alien.” He stresses that since the creation of television and film in the U.S., images of haunting and violent invaders from outer space are a frequent occurrence.

“These images, of course, have changed over the years. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, aliens were a mystery,” Lechuga said. “Over the decades though, the figure of the alien has become grotesque and dehumanized. Often, these aliens are trying to colonize earth and annihilate humans, a common theme in these films and television series. They keep the stereotype fresh for newer generations of viewers.”

Some scholars acknowledge the correlation between the “alien” in popular culture and the “alien” in political discourse and not just because of the term. In reality, it has to do with the colonial narrative at the center of U.S. American identity. Lechuga says his research often discusses how this narrative of the U.S. is inseparable from the narrative of “alien” invasion.

“The U.S., as a political strategy, has always relied on the anxiety of foreign influence or even foreign invasion to tightly control who belongs and who doesn’t. The popularity of alien films and television is fairly new compared to the political strategy in the U.S. I would say that the popularization of the media genre is just another outlet for that nationalist narrative to come out. Not to mention, it is a very profitable outlet, earning millions of dollars a year for those who are able to tell a good alien invasion narrative,” he said.

Lechuga and other scholars say the use of the word, “alien” can oftentimes be dangerous, leading to a stereotype that obscures the history of invasion and colonization built into the narrative of the U.S.

“The words we choose to use for one another have an impact on the way people are perceived and thus treated in our society. Dehumanizing words have no place in public discourse.” - Dr. Michael Lechuga

Just one more reminder that words REALLY DO MATTER.

Related stories