Jose Antonio Vargas: I’m not an ‘alien’

“RESIDENT ALIEN.”

Those two words, in all caps, adorn the plastic-covered green card that my grandfather, a naturalized U.S. citizen, handed me shortly after I arrived in the United States from the Philippines. I was 12. I don’t remember thinking much about the card (which was not green) or the words (which, strung together, seemed like the title of a video game or a movie). It wasn’t until four years later, while applying to get a driver’s permit, that I learned the card was fake. I wasn’t a “RESIDENT ALIEN” at all but another kind of alien — in common parlance, an “illegal alien.”

The label “alien” is nothing but alienating. And when coupled with “illegal,” it’s especially toxic. The words seep into the psyche, sometimes to the point of paralysis. They’re dehumanizing.

A few days before last week’s GOP debate in which Fox News anchor Chris Wallace and presidential candidates Mike Huckabee and Donald Trump casually referred to immigrants as “illegals,” I received an email from Bank of America, which I’ve been using since high school. (Yes, undocumented immigrants can open bank accounts.) “Ready to buy a home?” the subject line read. (And, yes, undocumented immigrants can also purchase homes.) I stared at the email, closed it, opened it again and wondered: Am I ready to buy a home in a country that regards me as an “illegal,” with official government forms that call people like me an “alien”?

Jose-Antonio Vargas' resident alien card. (Jose-Antonio Vargas)
Jose-Antonio Vargas’ resident alien card. (Jose-Antonio Vargas)

At least California is abandoning such harsh language. This week Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill into law that strips the word “alien” from the state’s labor code. The bill’s author, Sen. Tony Mendoza (D-Artesia), said the legislation was necessary to move California into line with evolving attitudes toward immigrants.

As he told The Times: ” ‘Alien’ is now commonly considered a derogatory term for a foreign-born person and has very negative connotations. The United States is a country of immigrants who not only form an integral part of our culture and society but are also critical contributors to our economic success.”

Mendoza, a first-generation American and the son of Mexican migrant workers, told me that he introduced SB 432 in February, shortly after he realized that the state labor code still uses “alien.” The use of that word, he learned, dates to the 1930s, when a hiring hierarchy was created among the state’s labor workers for government jobs. If you were a U.S. citizen from California, you got top priority. Second priority went to U.S. citizens from another state. Then, last of all, the “aliens.”

“Given how integral those workers were in the 1930s — and given how central undocumented workers are to our economy now — that word is unnecessary. It’s disrespectful. It’s degrading,” said Mendoza, who is chairman of the Senate Labor and Industrial Relations Committee.

There are those who say that “alien” is a perfectly fine, neutral term, and that anyone who finds it offensive is playing word police and should just check the dictionary. The second definition, in Merriam Webster: “from another country.” Sting’s pop song, “Englishman in New York,” joyfully repeats “I’m a legal alien” in the chorus. Ian Whitcomb, another English pop singer, wrote a memoir called “Resident Alien.”

Usage, however, changes along with social norms. Lawmakers wouldn’t dream of using the word “retarded” to describe someone who’s intellectually challenged, even though, decades ago, they used it regularly without giving offense. Words can take on negative connotations; “retarded” did — and “alien” has too.

Striking “alien” from the state labor code is a symbolic step that other states and the federal government should follow.

Of course, changing a word here and there can’t fully address the tangible problems facing the country’s undocumented population. But language frames the political conversation. And more humane language can lead to more humane policies, and vice versa.

While Congress dithers on immigration reform, this state, home to about 3 million undocumented immigrants, is embracing an essential yet marginalized part of its population. In the last few years, with strong bipartisan support and decreasing opposition, the state Legislature has passed bills granting undocumented immigrants access to driver’s licenses, in-state college tuition and healthcare for children. Brown has also signed legislation allowing noncitizens in high school to serve as election poll workers (greatly increasing the pool of people who speak languages aside from English) and protecting the rights of immigrant minors in civil lawsuits.

The message is unequivocal: We are not “aliens” to this state. We are residents of California.

Jose Antonio Vargas is the founder/editor of #EmergingUS, a new venture with The Times, and the founder of Define American, a media and culture organization.

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