By Dawn Quinn
Through our #wordsmatter campaign, we work with media outlets and political leaders to encourage use of language toward immigrants that is accurate and humane. We’re thrilled that we are not alone in this effort to educate and modernize the way in which our country’s most high-profile people and institutions communicate. The latest victory in what has now become a national effort between several committed groups comes from determined and passionate students at one of America’s most prestigious universities.
Thanks to Dartmouth College’s Coalition for Immigration Reform, Equality and DREAMers (CoFIRED), the Library of Congress has changed its subject headings to replace the term “illegal aliens,” with the more neutral “noncitizens” and “unauthorized immigration” in bibliographic records.
The campaign to remove the term from the records started back in the winter of 2014, when Dartmouth student Melissa Padilla asked a librarian to help with research for a class project and found that the subject headings around immigration were “illegal alien.” Padilla brought up her findings with CoFIRED and scheduled a meeting with the college librarian, which led to a change in the heading within Dartmouth.
The victory at the college inspired the students, but in order to change the heading beyond their school they had to petition the Library of Congress. Librarians and students worked together and sent a petition to the Library of Congress in the summer of 2014, with guidance from faculty advisor and former Dartmouth instructor Lourdes Gutierrez Najera. The Library of Congress rejected CoFIRED’s initial petition in February of 2015 because they believed that “undocumented” and “illegal” weren’t the same, and because “illegal alien” was a term widely used by the U.S. government.
Yet CoFIRED did not give up, and after nearly two years of petitioning, the Library of Congress has decided to stop using "illegal” and “alien” in subject headings for literature about immigration.
“It’s such an incredible victory and they’re now even more committed,” Najera said of the students of CoFIRED.
Najera, originally from Mexico, was undocumented for more than a decade, and she takes the effort to discontinue use of terms like “illegal alien” personally.
"It reminds me of my own experience and as a child feeling demeaned by it,” Najera said. “People don’t understand how this term is dehumanizing and pejorative and one of the reasons why I want to change this language. In today’s world it’s usually signaling Mexican, so it’s racialized in a way I find uncomfortable, alarming and disquieting.” Najera now teaches at Drake University, but still keeps in touch with her former students.
The Library of Congress agreed that the phrase “illegal aliens” has taken on a pejorative tone in recent years, and in response, many institutions, organizations and media outlets (notably, the Associated Press) have ceased use of the term to describe individuals.
The heading “aliens” is one of the oldest in the Library of Congress subject headings, with the first use of the word dating back to 1910.
For a full list of media outlets and political leaders who have committed to fairness in their depiction of undocumented Americans, please refer to our list on defineamerican.com/wordsmatter.
We are thrilled with the Library of Congress’s landmark decision, and hope these actions encourage others to consider removing phrases like“illegal aliens” from their conversations and content.