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Immigration Agencies Ordered Not To Use Term 'Illegal Alien' Under New Biden Policy

President Biden signs an executive order on immigration in February in the Oval Office.
Evan Vucci
President Biden signs an executive order on immigration in February in the Oval Office.

The Biden administration is ordering U.S. immigration enforcement agencies to change how they talk about immigrants.

The terms "illegal alien" and "assimilation" are out — replaced by "undocumented noncitizen" and "integration."

The new guidance is laid out in a pair of detailed memos sent Monday by the heads of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection, part of a broader effort by the Biden administration to roll back the previous administration's hard-line policies and build what they call a more "humane" immigration system.

"We set a tone and example for our country and partners across the world," Troy Miller, the top official at Customs and Border Protection, said in his memo. "We enforce our nation's laws while also maintaining the dignity of every individual with whom we interact. The words we use matter and will serve to further confer that dignity to those in our custody."

The new guidance mirrors an earlier change in language at U.S Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency in charge of legal immigration.

The word "alien" is used throughout U.S. immigration law. But the White House is seeking to replace it as part of a sweeping overhaul bill it sent to Congress.

The new guidance acknowledges that immigration authorities may still use the term when filling out required forms. But both memos emphasize that agents and officers should begin using the new terminology in internal communications and external correspondence immediately.

Under former President Donald Trump, ICE officers and agents had wide latitude to arrest anyone they encountered living in the country illegally, spreading fear and confusion in immigrant communities.

The Biden administration has placed sharp new limits on whom ICE can arrest, detain and deport.

"As an essential steward of a more secure and humane immigration system, ICE will set a tone and example for our country for years," wrote Tae Johnson, ICE's acting director in his memo announcing the new language guidance.

"The way that we choose to communicate is critical to enforcing the nation's laws while respecting the humanity and dignity of those individuals with whom we interact."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.