Aliens. It was definitely aliens, or so a wise History Channel sage turned internet meme once said.
But he wasn't talking about immigration.
However, Congressman Joaquin Castro is talking about making derogatory words used to describe immigrants a remnant of the past.
We'll get to that in a minute because some background is in order.
Earlier this year, the Library of Congress announced that it was deleting "illegal alien," a term beloved by right-wing pundits and politicians who don't understand that border walls, which not only divide communities, cannot withstand a solid ladder. Instead, the Library of Congress decided to use "non-citizens" and "unauthorized immigration" in its subject headings.
Shortly after that decision, Tennessee Congresswoman Diane Black introduced a bill called Stopping Partisan Policy at the Library of Congress that would force the book repository to continue using "illegal alien" in subject headings.
“This needless policy change by the Library of Congress embodies so much of what taxpayers find enraging about Washington," Black said in a statement in April. "By trading common-sense language for sanitized political-speak, they are caving to the whims of left-wing special interests and attempting to mask the grave threat that illegal immigration poses to our economy, our national security, and our sovereignty."
What a load of shit. Anyway, Black triggered the Republican outrage and priorities are priorities, right?
That same circle of xenophobes inserted a provision in the FY2017 Legislative Branch Appropriations bill requiring the Library of Congress to rescind its decision, just like Black's bill.
On Monday, Castro, Second Vice Chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, wrote a letter to the House Appropriations Committee urging it to leave the Library of Congress alone. Representatives of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus signed the letter as well.
“We live in a nation of immigrants, folks who have come to the United States to work hard and build better lives for themselves and for their families,” Castro said in a statement. “We shouldn’t be using a harmful, dehumanizing term like ‘alien’ to categorize individuals who contribute so much to our country."
According to Adrian Florido
, a member of NPR's Code Switch Team, the term "illegal alien" itself was once like the less offensive "undocumented immigrant."
The terms alien and especially illegal alien have become so politically charged that many immigrant advocates cringe when they hear them. But that wasn't true just a few decades ago. In fact, in 1970, a group of Chicano UCLA students actually wrote to the LA Times suggesting the paper use the term illegal alien. They were responding to an editorial in the publication whose title referred to people who'd crossed illegally from Mexico as wetbacks.
However, America continues, albeit slowly, to trudge reluctantly toward equality for minorities. And if you fast-forward to the 1990s, Florido explains that now "illegal alien" is more akin to "wetback."
Berkeley sociologist Edwin Ackerman told Florido that as the term became more widely used in the 1980s and into the next decade, the connotation changed. Here's Ackerman explaining why:
It allows you to speak of a certain group of people without having to recourse to sort of any racist language.
Simple stuff that Castro, unlike members of the House Appropriations Committee, understands.
"In the past, as society has come to understand the pain certain words can cause communities, we’ve done the right thing and eliminated those terms from our acceptable vocabulary," Castro said. "The Appropriations Committee should continue that progress now, not move our nation backwards and unnecessarily perpetuate a negative stigma.”
But actions speak louder than words, right?
Last October, Castro introduced the Correcting Hurtful and Alienating Names in Government Expression (CHANGE) Act, in an attempt to remove "aliens" from federal law. Instead, the words "foreign national" would be used. In place of "illegal alien," "undocumented foreign national." And lastly, the legislation would prohibit Executive Branch agencies from using both "alien" and "illegal alien" in signage and literature.
And if we're remarkably lucky, NASA and military officials from Area 51 will confirm the existence of aliens in a galaxy far far away, definitively ending the use of describing humans who have broken the law, often seeking a better life than the one they left behind, and entered the country illegally, as aliens.