‘Illegal alien’ is a descriptive, helpful legal term

By Paul Nachman, East Oregonian

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In his Oct. 9 opinion piece “Let’s retire illegal alien,” criticizing that helpfully descriptive term, Antonio Sierra quoted Atlantic Monthly writer Garrett Epps regarding “one of the earliest uses” of such language, in a Stanford Law Review article. Good find.

But what Sierra omitted is that Epps had identified an even earlier appearance, writing “[T]he earliest use [of the term] I can find is in 1950, when a federal appeals court used it to describe a Polish-born Mexican citizen whom Immigration and Naturalization Service officers had arrested.”

Fancy that: A federal appeals court! Judges at that level generally are sticklers for precise language. So we shouldn’t be surprised that “illegal alien” appears in fundamental U.S. law. One example is Title 8, Section 1365 of the United States Code, entitled “Reimbursement of States for costs of incarcerating illegal aliens and certain Cuban nationals.” (The text of that section also employs the term.)

On the other hand, Sierra’s favored language, “undocumented immigrant,” is clearly intended to make it sound as if what’s at issue is a mere paperwork snafu of negligible importance, rather than the serious lawbreaking inherent in illegal immigration.

People who obscure what’s at stake by beating their drums for euphemisms like “undocumented immigrant” bring to mind George Orwell’s great essay, “Politics and the English Language.” A highlight: “Political language … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

Paul Nachman

Bozeman, Montana

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