What’s In a Name? The Great “Alien” Debate

February 26th, 2015

This morning I awoke to hate mail directed at the other half of Red Girls Salon, Dee Dee Sorvino.  Evidently, she tweeted something about “aliens” and instantly set off a firestorm of anger.  One irate writer even compared her to Adolph Hitler.

Now I didn’t read the tweet so I’m not certain what set off such rage, but from reading everyone’s angry missives, there is one thing I can state categorically.

Contrary to what you might think, it’s perfectly okay to call someone an alien.

I practiced immigration law for several years, and I can attest to the fact that even the most ardent fans of open border immigration law use the word “alien.”  A big reason for this is that it’s a defined term in the Immigration and Nationality Act.  Specifically, at 8 U.S.C. Section 1101, “alien” is defined as “any person not a citizen or national of the United States.”

The word “alien” goes back centuries.  You’ll find it in the Bible to refer to people who essentially “aren’t from around here.”  Recall your American history and you may remember something called the Alien and Sedition Acts.  They were very controversial and are regarded quite negatively by historians but not because the word “alien” was used.  That was absolutely the least of their problems.

While the much more controversial term “illegal alien” isn’t in the statute per se, it is often used by various federal agencies to describe immigrants without legal status.  For example, the Internal Revenue Service specifically defines an “illegal alien” as “an alien who has entered the United States illegally and is deportable if apprehended, or an alien who entered the United States legally but who has fallen ‘out of status’ and is deportable.’

Language is a funny thing and granted some words fall out of favor faster than others.  For example, I don’t know many new parents out there naming their son Richard but calling him Dick these days. 

Also, we all learn in elementary school that many words have multiple meanings but are spelled exactly the same way.  So an alien can be some frightening green creature from another planet or a person visiting from another country.  One clearly shouldn’t be confused with the other because they have very different meanings.

Certainly, there will be lots of disagreement going forward as to what should happen to the millions of people working here without legal authorization, but everyone should take a deep breath and get a grip when it comes to the word “alien.”

If you have a problem with it, take it up with Congress and not Dee Dee.