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Why immigrants are ‘aliens’ in the United States

If you come to live in the United States, some of your documentation will have an alien registration number and if you get permanent residence, you will have a Green Card which used to be an Alien Resident Card. Until you become a U.S. citizen, you will be an alien in this country. Reporters, politicians and many people also call unauthorized immigrants as illegal aliens.

According to Keith Cunningham-Parmeter, professor at Willamette University – College of Law at Salem, Oregon in his paper Alien Language: Immigration Metaphors and the Jurisprudence of Otherness:

“Illegal alien was by far the most common term, appearing in 69% of opinions (2,905 cases of the Supreme Court). No other term appeared in more than 10% of opinions”

Illegal AlienThe data obtained is “perplexing” since illegal alien is not legal term and there is no clear legal definition for it, says Cunningham-Parmeter. Before being a law professor, Cunningham-Parmeter represented migrant workers and he decided to study the language used in federal courts to describe immigrants. “I began to notice patterns in the ways immigrants were described in legal opinion and the metaphors that judges choose when talking about immigrants”, he said.

Alien derives from the Old French word allien which means strange, foreign and the Latin words alienus and alius mean “belonging to another person or place, hostile, strange, other”. “According to early definitions, aliens are dangerous others who are marked by their strangeness”, the study says. “When science fiction writers were looking for a powerful word, they chose alien because it meant strange, foreign and pulled the word to mean extraterrestrial”, explains Cunningham-Parmeter.

Words cannot be divorced from their culturally grounded meanings, so Cunningham-Parmeter found dehumanizing metaphors to describe aliens; like animals who are caught and released or inanimate objects that are transported. The study cites some examples:

  1. • The alien must first either surrender to the INS for deportation or wait for the INS to catch him and commence a deportation proceeding.
  2. • The Government may continue to detain an alien who still remains here or release that alien under supervision.
  3. • The general purpose of the immigration statute’s employment prohibition is to diminish the attractive force of employment, which like a magnet pulls illegal immigrants toward the United States . . . .
  4. • Many Mexicans being imported into this country . . . .
  5. • She had attempted to smuggle aliens for gain.

He expects that people realize and recognize the use of these metaphors when talking about immigration because those words affect how law treats immigrants.

“It is incredible important how we talk about a problem because the policy reformulates a response to that problem. If immigration is an invasion, we call for soldiers and we build a wall. If it is a failure in economic policy, there is a new list of policies to create solutions”, he explains.