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.