The first thing newly minted Sen. Alex Padilla did after he was granted the gavel at the Senate’s key subcommittee handling immigration matters was to change the name, nixing “border security” and replacing it with “border safety.”
Across the Capitol, his companion in the House, Rep. Zoe Lofgren deleted the phrase “legal and illegal” from her subcommittee’s rules and replaced it with “authorized and unauthorized.”
At the Department of Homeland Security, agents have been ordered to stop using terms such as “alien” and “illegal alien” in favor of words like “undocumented” and “noncitizen.”
Now firmly in control of all the levers of political power in Washington, Democrats are moving to change the terms of debate over immigration — in a literal sense.
Mr. Padilla, who took the California seat of Vice President Kamala Harris, said changing the name of his subcommittee was part of his push to “restore dignity and humanity to our immigration policies.” His parents were immigrants from Mexico.
Ms. Lofgren, another California Democrat, insisted her change in the subcommittee’s rules was about precision, not about making a political statement.
Neither Republicans nor her fellow Democrats bought that explanation.
“Words do matter, and they matter more when they’re negative, dehumanizing and cruel. And I think that’s what these words do,” said Rep. Sylvia Garcia, Texas Democrat.
Countered Rep. Chip Roy, Texas Republican: “This is all semantic B.S.”
Democrats hope that rewriting the terms is a precursor to another attempt to enact legislation legalizing most illegal immigrants. President Biden has submitted his ideas for such a bill to Congress, and draft language is circulating.
Immigrant rights advocates said the words used are important.
“Name changes matter because policymakers have a responsibility to model and set the tone for language and behavior in a rational, functional society,” said Katie Adams, policy advocate at United Church of Christ.
She said the words are only a beginning and Congress must deliver on substantive changes.
“There are miles to go in policymaking spaces — for instance, delinking immigration with the Department of Homeland Security — so that when we talk about immigration, the lens is through creating an equitable and welcoming society rather than suspicion and control,” she said. “But this is a start. Words matter.”
Mr. Padilla’s move to change the name of the Senate subcommittee has not sparked an outcry from Sen. John Cornyn, the Texan who serves as ranking Republican.
But in the House, Ms. Lofgren’s move to change “illegal” to “unauthorized” met with howls from her panel’s Republican members.
Rep. Tom McClintock, California Republican, read from the federal law that makes it a misdemeanor crime for an “alien” to enter without going through an official crossing or to evade detection or to come to the U.S. under false pretenses.
“To blur this distinction is an insult to legal immigrants and an encouragement goes to those who flagrantly disregard our laws and disrespect the sovereignty of our nation,” the congressman said.
Ms. Lofgren countered that there are two types of illegal immigrants: those who jump the border and those who arrive on legal visas but overstay. That latter group, she said, isn’t captured in the description Mr. McClintock read.
“The word ‘unauthorized’ covers everything,” she said.
She said she spent the summer reviewing the entire Immigration and Nationality Act and is determined to “clean up the language.”
Debates over terms in immigration have raged for decades. Advocates want to make more headway in getting newspapers and politicians to change their verbiage.
It’s not clear how much these changes will pervade the broader debate.
Even on Capitol Hill, few people know the exact names of many congressional subcommittees.
Chris Haynes, a professor at New Haven University who co-authored “Framing Immigrants,” a 2016 study on terminology and immigration, said their research showed Americans intuitively understood that “undocumented,” “illegal” and “unauthorized” all refer to someone who is in the country without permission.
In terms of getting support for a policy, it didn’t matter much which term was used.
“People came to know that all of those three different terms were the same thing. They were referring to the same person,” he said.
Where terms did matter, Mr. Haynes said, was in describing policies. Labeling forgiveness as “amnesty” left a different impression than calling it a “pathway to citizenship.”
He said their research showed that those arguing for stricter immigration rules and limits don’t make much headway when they cite fears of a changing American culture but do have more luck when arguing that the costs of legalization or expanding immigration are too high.
Likewise, those who want a more lenient or expansive immigration system sway voters when they profess the benefits of more people, he said.
Mr. Haynes did challenge the notion that “alien” and other terms are required because they are written into the law.
“The term ‘illegal alien’ is dehumanizing, even if it is found in the code,” he said.
That is the idea behind the change at Homeland Security Investigations, a part of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, where agents have been ordered not to use the terms “illegal” or “alien.”
But the nomenclature is having a tough time breaking through.
Some HSI agents are still filing court documents referring to aliens, often abbreviated to UDAs, for “undocumented aliens.”
Even those who have bought into the new terminology still struggle with carrying it out.
Several HSI agents in court documents did call them “undocumented noncitizens” or UDNCs, the new abbreviations.
But even they still had to use the term alien to describe the crime they were investigating: alien smuggling.