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Dartmouth Students Prompt Library of Congress Change on ‘Illegal Alien’ Term



Valley News Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Hanover — Thanks in large part to student activists at Dartmouth College, libraries all over the English-speaking world this summer will stop using the term “illegal alien” to describe noncitizens who lack legal residency status.

Dartmouth undergraduates had petitioned the Library of Congress, which sets the cataloging standards for countless other libraries, to abandon a phrase that they see as offensive and “dehumanizing.”

“No human is illegal,” said Oscar Cornejo Casares, a junior who helped lead the drive to “Drop the I-Word,” as advocates are calling it. “No human should be regarded as anything less in a community because they lack citizenship papers.”

After two years, an initial rejection and a recent intervention from the influential American Library Association, as of this month, the Library of Congress finally has seen things the students’ way.

Federal authorities will replace the term “illegal alien” with two separate subject headers, according to a March 22 Library of Congress news release: “Noncitizens” and “Unauthorized immigration,” which the release says “may be assigned together to describe resources about people who illegally reside in a country.”

The release also said the word “alien” had become outmoded and prone to misunderstanding, and in all instances would be replaced with “noncitizen.”

Beginning in May or June, relabeling will take place everywhere, in “every catalog that uses English-language headings,” said John DeSantis, a Dartmouth librarian who helped the students with their petition. “The really nice thing is that not only did students make a change for the good here at Dartmouth, but they did it at all English-speaking libraries throughout the whole world.”

The revision does not go as far as the petitioners would have liked, however. Rather than use the advocates’ preferred term, “undocumented immigrants,” the Library of Congress settled on “unauthorized” and “noncitizens” — descriptors federal librarians said were more precise.

“Not all ‘undocumented’ people are, or intend to be, immigrants,” the library’s release said, “and many of them do in fact have documents of some type.”

Nevertheless, the change is rare and far-reaching — and took a long route to fruition.

“Usually they consider their terms to be made in stone,” DeSantis said of the Library of Congress, “and they’re not likely to change them.”

Federal librarians initially had rejected the request DeSantis sent on the students’ behalf, he said, citing the apparent unsuitability of “undocumented,” their replacement word.

“It wasn’t that they were opposed in theory to changing the term,” DeSantis said. “It’s just that they didn’t like the term we proposed.”

The undocumented student group that submitted the petition, the Dartmouth Coalition For Immigration Reform, Equality and DREAMers, or CoFIRED, was considering its next steps, said member and senior Melissa Padilla, “but we weren’t sure that we weren’t going to just give up.”

Some time later, a librarian colleague of DeSantis’, Tina Gross of St. Cloud State University, caught on to the campaign and began lobbying for the American Library Association to intervene.

On Gross’ side were reams of evidence that Casares, Padilla and their classmates had assembled: news stories, encyclopedias and research indexes, all of which declined to use the word “illegal” to describe people.

“We can officially make a proposal to change anything we want to, but they won’t respond,” DeSantis said of the Library of Congress, “... unless there’s some supporting documentation.”

In January, the ALA adopted a resolution calling for the abolition of “illegal alien” and the adoption of “undocumented immigrant.” Spurred by the move, federal librarians met and began discussing a solution.

“What is unusual about this campaign is that it was initiated by students,” Gross wrote in an email Tuesday. “(The Library of Congress) denied the proposal librarians made using the official channels, but students and librarians continued to raise the issue and make their voices heard. I initiated the ALA resolution and wrote it in consultation with a handful of people, and then many, many librarians helped to spread the word and garner support.”

Padilla said this victory could help counter anti-immigrant rhetoric that politicians like Donald Trump have been deploying in the 2016 election cycle.

When Trump, the Republican front-runner for president, uses the term “illegal alien” negatively, Padilla said, he often steps back afterward and says, “ ‘Oh, but it’s not pejorative.’ ”

The decision from the Library of Congress — which said in the release “the phrase illegal aliens has become pejorative” — changes that, the students say.

“It’s a big win,” Casares said. “It becomes part of our arsenal now.”

Rob Wolfe can be reached at 603-727-3242 or at rwolfe@vnews.com.