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“Noncitizens”: The Importance of Language in the Immigration Conversation and Impacting Lasting Change

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“Noncitizens”: The Importance of Language in the Immigration Conversation and Impacting Lasting Change

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Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
 
Emma Lazarus – The New Colossus – November 2, 1883

The above are the words inscribed on the plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty in New York. The Statue of Liberty, “Lady Liberty” (colloquially), or “The Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World,” as she is more formally known, was a gift of friendship from the people of France to the United States and has been recognized domestically and internationally as a symbol of freedom and democracy since her dedication in October 1886. “Lady Liberty” and the poem inscribed below her feet recognize that the United States is a nation of immigrants; and on Wednesday, January 20, 2021, the Biden Administration proposed a change to the immigration laws of the United States to reflect the same.

On day one of his presidency, President Biden sent a bill to Congress that seeks to modernize and reform the U.S. immigration system and “to restore humanity and American values to [that] system.” Of note, the proposed bill “further recognizes America as a nation of immigrants by changing the word ‘alien’ to ‘noncitizen’ in our immigration laws.” This proposed change comes as both welcome and long-awaited to immigration advocates, particularly after four years of divisive and dehumanizing language and actions by the prior administration.

In line with changing attitudes and fostering unity and inclusion in the context of immigration, the American Immigration Council (AIC) recently established the AIC Center for Inclusion and Belonging. As the Center’s Mission Statement reads: “Today, many in power are using the issue of immigration to ignite a deep sense of fear and threat … and are activating an ‘us vs. them’ narrative to their political advantage.” The statement goes on to question “why … so many [are] receptive to divisive messaging” and to delve further into the topic, which you may read more about here: https://inclusion.americanimmigrationcouncil.org/home-inclusion.

Indeed, while changing one word in our laws may not seem like a monumental change to all, it is important to understand the impact that language and language patterns have on our perceptions, beliefs, worldviews, actions, and behaviors. Language is how ideas—fears, falsehoods, prejudices, biases, and divisiveness, on one hand; confidence, facts, understanding, tolerance, acceptance, harmony, and community, on the other—are spread. In fact, researchers have found that even well-meaning statements can unintentionally perpetuate biases. It thereby follows that being more intentional with our language, in our laws and in our lives, serves to determine which ideas will have lasting power and which ones will not. In the context of immigration, changing our language—even starting with just one word, particularly when supported and used by those in positions of leadership—has the power to change the conversation around immigrants’ rights and the future of immigration law in the United States and, in turn, to shift attitudes and to impact lasting cultural and legislative change.

So, no, changing one word in the laws, by itself, will not reunite families, repair our economy, or do anything of the sort. However, the fact that we are even having this conversation, finally, in the first weeks of 2021, means that the tides are changing and that we have an administration in place who is serious not only about reforming our immigration laws but also about treating humans like humans, no matter where they hail from—and that is everything.

For additional information regarding the substantive measures proposed in the bill and other changes made by the Biden Administration in its first days, please refer to prior blog posts:

This information is intended for educational purposes only. If you have questions about your eligibility for an immigration benefit or your immigration options, please contact Joseph & Hall at (303) 297-9171 to schedule a consultation with one of our experienced attorneys. If you are already a client of Joseph & Hall and have questions about your case, please contact your attorney to discuss your particular case.

Please stay tuned for continued updates via this website and our Facebook page throughout this time.

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