As Biden tweaks language around immigration, Upper Valley experts call for more substantive reform

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 4/21/2021 9:52:08 PM
Modified: 4/21/2021 9:52:06 PM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — A new order from President Joe Biden banning federal immigration agencies from using terms such as “illegal alien” is a step in the right direction, say some immigration activists in the Upper Valley.

But others argue that an order dictating language does not do enough to promote rights of undocumented people.

Lawyers and activists spoke out this week following the order, which Biden’s office sent in a memo to Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Patrol Monday. The order bans the federal agencies from using the terms “alien,” “illegal alien” and “assimilation.”

Instead, they should use terms like “Noncitizen or migrant,” “undocumented,” and “integration” according to the WashingtonPost, which first reported on the memo.

The order does not have any bearing on the language used in state or federal law. U.S. Code Title 8, which covers immigration laws, still refers to undocumented people as “aliens.”

Erin Jacobsen, an immigration lawyer and professor at Vermont Law School, called Biden’s order a good first step. She said the order applies only to ICE and CBP because those are the only two agencies that Biden can have say over without going through Congress.

“I think it’s welcome and I think it sends an important message that the Biden administration is trying to walk back a terminology and sense of vitriol that the Trump administration used,” Jacobsen said.

She explained that during the Trump presidency, and in the 2016 election, Trump frequently used words like “alien” and “illegal” as well as calling some immigrants drug dealers, which Jacobsen calls a “language of hate and fear.” She also said using the word alien in the context of immigration makes people appear to be “not human.”

However, while she’s supportive of Biden’s order, Jacobsen said more needs to be done to further rights for asylum seekers and other undocumented people. That includes addressing the immigration court system, which Jacobsen calls “broken,” largely because of how long it currently takes asylum seekers to have their cases heard. She also wants the administration to work toward providing legal status to students and other residents who have long lived in the U.S. without documentation.

“This is a really welcome first step, but I think we’re all kind of waiting to see what happens next,” Jacobsen said.

That’s the case for Ethan Lawrence, a Windsor resident who grew up in the U.S., but whose father traveled to the States from his home country of El Salvador.

Terms like “alien” and “illegal,” have “played a huge part in who we see as being human and whose lived experience is valuable,” Lawrence said. However, he also criticized the order, calling it “political” and “performative.”

“In and of itself it’s a positive step but it’s a little premature for self-congratulations,” Lawrence said.

He explained that he would prefer to see the federal government ensure that “all due process and the same civil liberties” are shown to undocumented people as they are to U.S. citizens, and he would prefer to see Biden’s administration fulfill campaign promises regarding immigration. Lawrence also said he was disappointed in another recent order Biden signed, keeping the cap on U.S. refugee admissions at 15,000 people — a historic low that was set by Trump.

“I don’t really care what your language is, if you’re going to treat people in a dehumanizing fashion,” Lawrence said. “It doesn’t matter whether you call them ‘illegals’ or not. It matters whether you put them in camps.”

Other activists, like Windsor resident Kira Kelley, the chair of the Vermont National Lawyer’s Guild, shared Lawrence’s criticism. Kelley said the order merely addresses a “symptom of a huge, underlying problem,” without addressing the cause.

“There’s a category of people who are treated as ‘other’ because they were not born in this country,” Kelley said.

She said while terms like “illegal alien” are racist, changing the language does not fix the larger issues regarding how the country treats immigrants and undocumented people. The issues she would like to see addressed are unjust immigration laws and a poorly regulated immigration court, Kelley said.

Some Republicans have objected to Biden’s move. The Post noted that U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., tweeted: “We use the term ‘illegal alien’ because they’re here illegally. This kind of weakness and obsession with political correctness is why we’re having a crisis on the border in the first place.”

In January, Biden brought a bill before Congress that would provide a path to citizenship for more undocumented immigrants living in the U.S.

Anna Merriman can be reached at or 603-727-3216.

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