Memo to ICE Agents Reportedly Says They Must Stop Using the Term ‘Illegal Alien’


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By Araceli Cruz

January 29, 2021

“How we describe people sticks, it affects how we treat them.”

It’s been one week since President Joe Biden presented his immigration reform bill, which called for, among other things, to end the use of the offensive phrase “illegal alien.”

Now, in a memo, David Shaw, acting assistant director of domestic operations at Homeland Security Investigations, has instructed US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents to stop using the term “illegal alien” to refer to undocumented people in any documents, according to The Washington Times.

RELATED: Biden Plans to Remove Offensive ‘Illegal Alien’ Term From US Laws

The Americano reached out to ICE for a statement regarding the memo and ICE said it would not comment on internal correspondence. 

According to the report, Shaw said agents should use “undocumented,” “noncitizen,” or “undocumented individual.” These terms would comply with President Biden’s adherence to use “noncitizen” as a way to discuss people without citizenship documentation.  

Upon further investigation, on the ICE government website, the term “illegal alien” has not been used since Jan. 19, before President Biden’s inauguration. However, it’s important to note that ICE has not reported any detainments of noncitizens since Jan. 19. 

On Jan. 20, President Biden introduced the US Citizenship Act of 2021 in order to establish a “new system to responsibly manage and secure our border, keep our families and communities safe, and better manage migration across the Hemisphere.”

Part of that act, aside from introducing a roadmap to citizenship for undocumented individuals, stipulates that immigration law replace the word “alien” with “noncitizen”. 

Several Democratic lawmakers welcomed this news from the Biden administration as the term “alien” has been used negatively by right-wing media and conservative politicians to vilify noncitizens. 

Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-Texas) tweeted last week, “A path to citizenship our undocumented neighbors is long overdue. President Biden’s bill also includes a provision that I’ve championed: replacing the word ‘alien’ which has been used as a dehumanizing slur. Words matter—and this measure speaks volumes.”

Vanessa Parra Sparkles, communications director at Define American, tweeted, “Language matters. How we describe people sticks, it affects how we treat them. Thrilled to see this as part of this immigration package: The bill also would replace the term ‘alien’ in US immigration laws with ‘noncitizen.’”

RELATED: Immigration Advocates Call Biden’s Pause on Deportations a “Good First Step”

In recent years, several news media outlets have also restructured their language to reflect a humanitarian way of describing undocumented people. Pew Research Center shows that the use of “illegal alien” is considered insensitive by many, and reached its low point in 2013, dropping to 5% of terms used. It had consistently been in double digits in the other periods studied, peaking at 21% in 2007.


  • Araceli Cruz

    Araceli is Copper Courier's social media manager. Her past work has been published in The Guardian, Teen Vogue, Refinery29, Mic, The Cut, Zora, The Village Voice, Rolling Stone, and others.



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