Use of term ‘illegal alien’ stirs heated debate in Congress

Ben Ray Luján. Jason Stilgebouer/The New Mexican

U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-Santa Fe, joined a group of Hispanic Democrats on Thursday in a battle against congressional Republicans who want the Library of Congress to use the term “illegal aliens” when referring to undocumented immigrants.

The Library of Congress in March proposed to stop using the words “alien” and “illegal aliens” in its subject headings. Its staff proposed to replace them with words such as noncitizens or unauthorized immigrants.

But Republicans in the House of Representatives added language to a pending budget bill that would mandate continued use of the terms.

In a debate Thursday on the House floor, Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., said his proposal is not meant to demean anyone but to keep the library consistent with American immigration law, which refers to undocumented immigrants as illegal aliens.

Democrats criticized Republicans, linking their support of the term “illegal aliens” to Donald Trump, the likely Republican presidential nominee. Democrats and some Republicans have criticized Trump for his harsh words about Mexican immigrants, as well as for his more recent claim that an American-born federal judge with Mexican parents could not be fair in a case involving a business that was called Trump University.

“In a week that saw House Republicans defend Trump’s racist comments about federal Judge Gonzalo Curiel, it is disappointing, but not surprising, that they are now taking unprecedented steps in order to preserve an offensive term that has no place in our discourse,” Luján said.

A day earlier, Republicans killed an alternative proposal, co-sponsored by Democratic Reps. Joaquin Castro of Texas and Michelle Lujan Grisham of Albuquerque, that would have replaced the term “illegal alien” with “undocumented foreign national.”

Lujan Grisham has said the term “illegal alien” is unnecessary in this day and age. “Worse, we’ve seen how these terms are used to demean and devalue human beings for political purposes.”

Castro said that Republicans used the budget bill to politicize the debate.

“It’s inappropriate that Republicans are using a funding bill to legislate, and it’s discouraging that they are so adamantly supporting the use of harmful language,” Castro said Thursday in a statement of his own.

A spokeswoman for Rep. Steve Pearce of Hobbs, the lone Republican in the New Mexico congressional delegation, did not respond to questions from The New Mexican asking what Pearce’s stance was.

Though the Library of Congress said in its March announcement that the term “illegal alien” had taken on a pejorative meaning, it wants to change the term because “alien” could be confused with the word for a being from another planet.

Some congressional Republicans defended Trump’s comments, and others criticized what Trump said but remained his supporters. For instance,Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the speaker of the House, said he would continue to support Trump for president but regarded Trump’s comment about the judge to be “racist.”

Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, whose paternal grandparents came to the U.S. from Mexico in the early 1900s, told The Associated Press on Thursday through a spokesman that she “strongly disagrees with some of Mr. Trump’s rhetoric and positions, including his comments about a federal judge.”

In Martinez’s first campaign and term, she referred to undocumented immigrants as “illegal aliens.” More recently, she has referred to them as “illegal immigrants,” a term that advocacy groups also say is dehumanizing.

In 2006, former Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, used the term “illegal alien” when referring to people committing crime at the U.S.-Mexico border.

In this year’s legislative session in New Mexico, a debate similar to the one in Congress occurred, but it was brief.

Republican Sens. Sander Rue and Mark Moores of Albuquerque referred to immigrants as “aliens” during a debate on a law that allows undocumented immigrants who live in New Mexico to obtain driver’s licenses.

Sen. Howie Morales, D-Silver City, responded: “Never, ever should a human being be referred to as an alien.”

Contact Uriel Garcia at 505-986-3062 or ugarcia@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter @ujohnnyg.

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