Accountability over the Government’s Language

By Hannah Sohn

Statement of the problem:

America renders a message of apparent contradiction — a nation founded by immigrants yet simmering with discourse concerning whether or not they belong. The immigration narrative continues to evolve as new policies are put in place. The issue of immigration transcends politics and shifts discussion regarding immigrants, discrimination and injustice towards language around minority groups; this conversation pervades throughout a changing America. While individuals identify immigrant-disrespect in government procedures, it leads to manifestation of rank and hierarchical positions that construct their unequal treatment. In an attempt to reverse the rhetoric, it’s necessary for a reform that prompts fair treatment and safety towards immigrant communities to promote the nation’s unity for all people.  

 Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)  has received public scrutiny and criticism in  response to mistreatment of immigrants. Recently, backed by a strong social media presence, instances such as family separations at the border call for this agency to be seen as a villain. In 2003 ICE was created through a merger of the investigative and interior enforcement elements of the former U.S. Customs Service and the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The agency is primarily devoted to three operational directorates: including – Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) – to advance the ICE mission of protection. The mission explicitly states actions against “illegal immigration that threaten national security and public safety” of American citizens” (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). The ERO identifies its purpose “To identify, arrest, and remove aliens who present a danger “or “are a risk to public safety” as well as “those who enter the United States illegally or otherwise undermine the integrity of our immigration laws and our border control efforts” (Immigration and Customs Enforcement).  

However, the existence of many immigrants in our nation does not impose an imminent threat. There needs to be a level of respect regarded in ICE procedures and in the dialogue they incite to address topics of deportation. There should be greater measures made to distinguish those who are “threat to public safety” and those who are trying to gain permanent residence to achieve a better life. These initiatives need to be widely implemented into all aspects of ICE routines. However, the start is by altering the mission statement and word choices around how to address the community. This is a start to deeper reform that will demand respect and humane practices. I hope to lend insight into the specific issues but also that my findings and recommendations may help to improve the immigrant experience.

Proposed implementation and reform:

In attempts to make better the treatment of immigrants, states such as California, New York, Colorado and others have proposed reform in their procedures on how to address immigrants. As California State Senator, Tony Mendoza and other individuals affected acknowledge, the term Alien’ is considered a derogatory address for a foreign-born person. The term carries negative connotations projected towards the immigrant community as a whole (Foster Global 2019). Recently, California neglected to remain silent in the face of this injustice as the word “alien” will no longer appear in California’s labor code. While this new law that Governor, Jerry Brown (D) signed, is a purpose meant to rectify the word being seen as disparaging to people not born in the United States (Foster Global 2019). Moreover,  New York City went a step further last September. In an effort to prevent discrimination based on immigration status, it banned  the usage of the alien phase (Kelley 2020). These various elected leaders  have taken the initiative to create rules that promote a more human image of  the immigrant community. The purpose of their action is to “bend social sentiments in the migrants’ favor” (Kelley 2020). 

The shift in rhetoric hopes to inspire a positive change within promoting an improved psychological mindset within the immigrant communities. While results of studies examining anti-immigrant political rhetoric and policy, is evidence that these terms negatively impact the mental and physical health of foreign nationals (Roy 2018).  The effects of these words: “alien” and “illegal alien” work to demonize and dehumanize the migrant community (Roy 2018). The dialogue used around immigrants creates a common identity that is reflective of the use of “alien” term. Through extension of its use, the community feels like outcasts as the world is reflective of the image of Martians who don’t share human qualities or emotions.  

The term “alien” should not be placed in our government’s description of human beings. Although the term may not fully be categorized as propaganda, it promotes a strong perception. ICE should change its address of “aliens” to a less dehumanizing term. The federal level should set a precedent, followed by other states. The various places in which the ICE publicized procedures the use of this word should be revoked. Instead, they should replace it with a world that is reflective of these individuals being human beings. Further, ICE should similarly make conscious changes in their particular words in an attempt to moralize the community.  The current mission statement could be altered “those who” rather than “that ” when deliberating their potential harm and threat to the well-being of society. This changes the message that all immigrants are harmful to deliberately show that there are instead few. The dialect in which they address the community in other areas should make similar adjustments. While refraining from generalizing the community and specifying the danger present in few people, the rhetoric surrounding the community will adjust to being less hostile. These sentiments can then be further implemented into all procedures. 


            These changes are important. The number of immigrants living in our nation has expanded and continues to increase (Radford 2019). Data provides proof that the foreign-born population reached a record 44.4 million in 2017. These numbers continue to expand with each year. Obama addresses DACA-recipients, considered among illegal immigrants, “they play in our neighborhoods, they’re friends with our kids, they pledge allegiance to our flag” (Radford 2019). They live with us and among us. Additionally, Immigrants started 25 percent of the highest-growth companies between 1990 and 2005, and these companies directly employ an estimated 220,000 people inside the United States (Roy 2018). These individuals help our economy and provide job opportunities. They work with us and for us.

Changing the way ICE addresses Immigrants present a bold statement. While ICE has the ability to help frame societal perceptions through the way it handles immigration issues. ICE needs to change its procedures to better treat immigrants. They should distinguish those who are a threat and those who are not.  The change in dialect will not solve these problems. However, through creating a small adjustment, there is hope to inspire change into the system as a whole and into the minds of the citizens. Through creating a more positive perception this should encourage better treatment and a better societal view. As citizens of this country, we look to our leadership to set a standard on how to behave (Kelley 2020). Through changing the way they are addressed will create a change in how our society perceives them.


“The Dehumanizing History Of The Words We’ve Used To Describe Immigrants.” Foster Global, 26 July 2019,

“Enforcement and Removal Operations.” ICE,

Kelley, Alexandra. “Lawmakers Battle over Calling People ‘Undocumented Immigrants’ or ‘Illegal Aliens’.” TheHill, 14 Feb. 2020,

Radford, Jynnah. “Key Findings about U.S. Immigrants.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 17 June 2019,

“Remarks by the President on Immigration.” National Archives and Records Administration, National Archives and Records Administration,

Roy, Avik. “6 Problems With The Way We Think About Income Inequality.” Medium,, 5 June 2018,

“Who We Are.” ICE,

Wolbrecht, Christina, et al., editors. Politics of Democratic Inclusion. Temple University Press, 2005. JSTOR, Accessed 18 Apr. 2020.