The Library of Congress was set to start replacing the term “illegal alien” in subject headings with “noncitizens” and “unauthorized immigration,” but the change is on hold while public comment is taken.
WASHINGTON — Melissa Padilla was doing research on immigration in her university library at Dartmouth College when she noticed the term “illegal aliens” popping up again and again. The more she saw it, the angrier she became.
“This term, and the way people used it to criminalize the choices our parents made in order to provide us with better lives, completely detracts from the brave choices and obstacles we overcame in order to survive,” said Padilla, 26, who was an undocumented immigrant for 15 years after her parents brought her to the United States from Mexico when she was 7. “I’m not illegal. I’m a survivor that continues to work toward a better future.”
Padilla joined with Dartmouth students at the Coalition for Immigration Reform, Equality and Dreamers, and they have spent more than two years petitioning the Library of Congress to remove “illegal alien” from its subject headings.
In March, the library said it would make the change, after agreeing with Ms. Padilla’s argument — bolstered by an American Library Association resolution — that “alien” and “illegal alien” are pejorative terms. The library, which is now taking public comments on the change, has said it will replace the term with “noncitizens” and “unauthorized immigration,” setting a precedent that may be followed by other libraries on a global scale.
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But that decision — at a time immigration has become a big topic in the presidential campaign and at the Supreme Court — has ignited an angry response from conservative lawmakers who accuse the library of abandoning the letter of the law to pander to immigrant rights’ advocates.
“There is no other way to put this: the library has bowed to the political pressure of the moment,” Republicans wrote in a May 10 letter to David Mao, acting librarian of Congress. The letter was written by Reps. Lamar Smith and John Culberson, both of Texas, and Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Republicans who have long advocated stricter enforcement of immigration laws.
The House added a provision June 10 to the legislative-branch appropriations bill that would require the library to retain terminology used in federal law, including “alien.” Congress will move forward with the appropriations process when it reconvenes in September. In the meantime, the library is set to stop using “illegal alien,” although library officials are aware they may have to reverse their changes if the provision becomes law.
Gayle Osterberg, communications director of the Library of Congress, said this was the first time Congress has intervened with the routine relabeling, which the library does every year to keep thousands of catalogs current. Osterberg noted that there was no legislative opposition, for example, when “Negro” and “retard” were removed from subject headings.
Padilla, who became a permanent resident in 2012 after her father became a naturalized citizen, said she believes “illegal alien” is used to demean Mexican immigrants specifically, regardless of legal status. Rep. Joaquín Castro, D-Texas, agreed with her.
“When ugly, belittling names are used to describe groups of people, those terms can make discrimination seem OK,” Castro said on the House floor on June 9, in an effort to stop the provision from being included in the bill.
Castro, whose grandmother was a Mexican immigrant, also helped write a letter, along with the congressional Hispanic, Black and Asian Pacific American caucuses, that was sent to the House Appropriations Committee expressing disappointment with the provision.
“Even if they aren’t American citizens, they are still human beings and should be respected as human beings,” Castro said in an interview after the provision was approved. “Alien” is an inaccurate term, he said, because it does not fairly describe hardworking people who contribute to the national economy.
Culberson said that any term other than “alien” would be legally inaccurate and that the Library of Congress was obligated to disseminate accurate information.
Culberson said in an interview that those who oppose the provision have no basis in federal law. “Long-standing federal law mandates and it is clear that if you have entered illegally or legally you are an illegal alien or a legal alien,” he said.
Many news media companies have made changes similar to the library’s. The Associated Press, which publishes a stylebook that guides hundreds of news outlets, including The Seattle Times, decided in 2013 to stop using “illegal” to describe a person, arguing that only actions are illegal. The New York Times does not use “alien,” but will use “illegal” to refer to immigrants without legal status and “undocumented” and “unauthorized.”
While the debate continues, Padilla is enjoying her citizenship status. But when anyone challenges her opinion on terminology, she said, she quotes the late Elie Wiesel: “No human being is illegal.”
Correction: July 22, 2016
An earlier version of this article misstated the status of a plan by the Library of Congress to remove the term “illegal alien” as a subject heading. The relabeling process has not begun, because a public comment period was extended. This change came to light after the article was published.