Don’t call them “undocumented immigrants”; use the term “illegal alien.” That’s the new guidance from the Justice Department to federal prosecutor offices across the country, according to an agency-wide email obtained by CNN.
The move is a huge win for anti-immigration lobby groups that have been pushing to eliminate the term “undocumented immigrant” from American vocabulary for at least a decade. One of these groups, the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), has ties to six top Trump administration advisers, including the head of the DOJ, Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
The Justice Department directed all 94 U.S. Attorney press offices to use the term “illegal alien” so that the agency’s messaging is consistent, the email says. “The term ‘undocumented immigrant’ is not based in U.S. code and should not be used to describe someone’s presence in the country.” DOJ press releases had used both terms “undocumented” and “illegal” to describe people without legal status prior to the change.
Groups that advocate for more border security and lower levels of legal immigration have long viewed the term “undocumented” as soft. Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, said he was pleased with the change.
“It’s a symbolic but important way of communicating that the anti-borders folks no longer have the upper hand,” Krikorian told VICE News.
The language change for DOJ press releases is the latest in a series of policy changes by the Trump administration on these groups’ wish lists. Officials are prosecuting non-criminal immigrants for removal that prior administrations used to let go and threatening to withhold funding from cities who do not work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Earlier this month three researchers at FAIR published a paper titled “Why “Illegal Alien” is the correct term,” calling “undocumented immigrant” a “feel-good term.” A post on FAIR’s website from 2009 says, “The enablers of illegal aliens have engaged in a ‘political correctness’ campaign in an attempt to suppress use of the legally recognized term ‘illegal alien’ often asserting that ‘a person cannot be illegal.’”
As a senator from Alabama from 1997 to 2017, Sessions received campaign donations from FAIR. The group awarded him in 2007 for opposing an immigration reform bill and he was a keynote speaker at their advisory meeting that same year.
Whether a person should be described as illegal was largely resolved in 2013, at least for media outlets, when, as CNN points out, the Associated Press stylebook changed to say that only actions, not people, should be described as illegal. According to the AP, people should not be described as “illegal aliens,” but instead people who immigrated to or lived in the country illegally.
Tess Owen contributed reporting.
Cover image: In this Aug. 9, 2012, file photo, people are detained for being in the country illegally and are transferred out of the holding area after being processed at the Tucson Sector of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection headquarters in Tucson, Arizona. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)