Biden Forbids Immigration Judges From Using the Term 'Alien'

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July 27, 2021

Federal immigration judges may no longer use the word "alien" in their legal opinions, according to a Department of Justice directive.

Citing an immigration order from President Joe Biden, senior DOJ official Jean King instructed the nation's 539 immigration judges to "use language that is consistent with our character as a nation of opportunity and of welcome." The July 23 memo forbids employees in the Executive Office for Immigration Review from using "'alien' or 'illegal alien' to describe migrants."

King suggests judges use "respondent, applicant, petitioner, beneficiary, migrant, noncitizen, or non-U.S. citizen," as a replacement when writing opinions. Instead of "undocumented alien" or "illegal alien," judges should use "undocumented noncitizen, undocumented non-U.S. citizen, or undocumented individual," the document says.

The Immigration and Nationality Act describes an "alien" as "any person not a citizen or national of the United States." A variety of federal laws and regulations use the term "alien" to describe individuals who can be removed from the United States, in contrast to mere nationals, who may be American citizens or residents of territories such as American Samoa.

The Biden administration grounded the policy change in part on journalism standards, rather than federal law. King cited the Associated Press's 2013 decision to eliminate the use of "illegal immigrant" in its reporting to justify the change. The department memo grants the immigration judges an exemption if they are "quoting a statute, regulation, legal opinion, court order, or settlement agreement" but advises them to shy away from other mentions.

Biden has already taken steps to eliminate "alien" and "illegal immigrant" from the lexicon of federal officials through a series of executive orders and policy changes. The White House is looking to go even further through legislation. Biden has asked Congress to pass legislation that would replace such terminology in existing federal statutes. Rep. Joaquin Castro (D., Texas) proposed a similar law in 2015 that would replace the term "illegal alien" in federal law with "undocumented foreign national." Liberal lawmakers have already taken such steps at the local level. Individuals in New York City can face criminal prosecution if they use the terms "illegals" or "illegal alien" to "demean, humiliate, or harass a person."

The policy shift comes as both the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security struggle to process a record number of migrants crossing the southern border. A study from Syracuse University found that deportation orders from immigration judges have plummeted despite the massive uptick in illegal border crossings.