Your Word Against Mine: A Battle over the Term 'Illegal Alien'

May 22, 2016

A student at Dartmouth College touched off a successful national campaign to get the Library of Congress to stop using the term "illegal aliens" to refer to undocumented immigrants. Now a Congressional committee is challenging the move.   


Tell students that a battle has been brewing over whether or not the U.S. Library of Congress should use the term "illegal aliens."

In April 2016, the Library of Congress announced that it planned to change the catalog subject "illegal aliens" to "unauthorized immigration" or "noncitizens." The announcement followed a campaign by campus immigrants’ rights activists, who objected that the term "illegal aliens" is both inaccurate and dehumanizing.

But one month later, the Appropriations Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives objected. In May, they directed the Library of Congress to continue using the term "illegal aliens." This battle is continuing, and the Library of Congress has asked the public for feedback on the issue.

Ask students to read the information below. 



Student Reading: 
A Cataloging Battle

In addition to being the largest library in the world, the Library of Congress creates the classification system and cataloging rules that make it possible for us to find the books (or other stuff) we are looking for and to research specific subjects. One ingredient in this system is a specific set of subject words that can be used. For instance, you won’t find books or other materials about copiers listed under the word "copiers," but under "copying machine." Smart researchers know that using these specific subject words saves a lot of time.

Of course language changes over time. New terms are added each year and outmoded headings are changed. Some changes are easy: Bombay is now Mumbai. Computers used to be "electronic calculating machines." "Cookery" is now referred to as "cooking."

Other changes have sought to correct cultural insensitivity (or actual prejudice) toward minorities. "Handicapped" became "people with disabilities" (and believe it or not "cripples" preceded "handicapped!").  Homosexuality used to be found under "abnormal sexual relations."

Objecting to "Illegal Immigrants"

In 2013, Dartmouth student Melissa Padilla was doing research at the library for a paper on undocumented students. When she kept coming up with documents having the subject heading "illegal immigrants" or "illegal aliens," she got mad. Padilla, along with linguists and others, believes that the term is not only offensive, but inaccurate and prejudicial:  No other law-breakers are referred to as "illegal."

"The complaint many people have with the term 'illegal alien' is that its construction makes it seem as if the people themselves are illegal, rather than just their status."  --Dartmouth librarian Elizabeth Kirk

Padilla brought her concern to the attention of a campus group working for immigrant rights—the Coalition for Immigration Reform, Equality and DREAMers  (or CoFIRED). CoFIRED began a campaign to change the subject terms to words that did not insult the human beings being referred to in the subject heading. 

The activists got the Dartmouth librarians involved, gathered documentation, and eventually presented their case to the Library of Congress. In February 2015, their request was rejected.

But that wasn't the end. Some divisions and committees of the American Library  Association  got on board and pushed the organization to formally endorse the proposal. That and the social media campaign the students began (#DroptheIword and #NoHumanBeingis Illegal) prompted the Library of  Congress to reverse its decision. The Library announced in April 2015 that it would begin using the terms "noncitizens" and "unauthorized Immigration" instead of the offensive headings calling people illegal.

But that wasn't the end either. Not long after the Library of Congress made its decision,  politicians stepped in. Rep. Diane Black, a Republican from Tennessee, introduced a bill she named the Stopping Partisan Policy at the Library of Congress Act, which directs the Library to continue using "aliens" and "illegal aliens."

"By trading common-sense language for sanitized political-speak, they are caving to the whims of left-wing special interests and attempting to mask the grave threat that illegal immigration poses to our economy, our national security, and our sovereignty." -- Rep. Diane Black

The House Appropriations Committee, meanwhile, included language in a legislative spending bill that tells the Library of Congress to use language that is consistent with the U.S. Code, which uses the words "illegal aliens." An amendment offered by Democrats on the committee to support the Library's decision failed on a vote of 24-25.

For Padilla, who was once undocumented herself, the fight she began over the term "illegal alien" is about being "seen as an equal and not ... as an other, or as less than.  I’ve gotten to see how changing the place I work impacts communities [elsewhere].... A change in the Library of Congress [represents] a change within academia, but also translates into the real world."

We don't know what the ultimate outcome of the debate will be. The Library of Congress has invited the public to comment on the proposed revision through an online survey. Comments will be accepted through July 20, 2016, at:

If Congress does reverse the Library of Congress' decision, unauthorized immigrants may have to wait a bit longer to see "illegal immigrants" go the way of "gypsies" (now under the heading Romanies).



For Discussion

  1. Rachel Cote wrote in Jezebel, " How we refer to people generally indicates how we will treat them. But then, everyone involved in this dispute—including and perhaps especially those determined to keep "illegal alien" in circulation—seems aware of that."  What does she mean by that, and do you agree?
  2. What do you think of the argument that people themselves can’t be "illegal"?  Can you think of any other groups who are referred to as "illegal"?
  3. Imagine that you are undocumented. What terms would you choose (if you had to) for libraries to label you?
  4. News media like the NY Times, AP, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, ABC, CBS, NBC and the Wall St. Journal have either eliminated or discourage the use of "illegal" for people who run afoul of our immigration laws.  At what point should government institutions change the language it uses if it offends people?
  5. The Library of Congress has a long, deliberate and professional process for amending its subject heading vocabulary. Is it the role of Congress to overrule the process?


For action

Ask students if they are interested in commenting on the wording change through the Library of Congress’ survey.  If so, what comments do they want to make, and why?