The House has voted to order the Library of Congress to keep using the term “illegal alien” to describe those who come to the U.S. without authorization, saying that as long as federal laws written by Congress use those terms, so should their official records-keeper.
The library earlier this had proposed changing, saying that despite being used in law, the term had “become pejorative” and needed to be axed. Instead the library said it would use “noncitizen” to refer to illegal immigrants, and “unauthorized immigration” to refer to the broader issue.
Republicans revolted against the change, and demanded in the annual legislative branch funding bill that the library use terms that reflect federal law. The code repeatedly refers to foreigners as aliens, including those here both legally and illegally, so that would force the library to maintain the term “illegal alien.”
Democrats balked and forced a vote Friday, but the GOP prevailed on a 237-170 party-line vote.
“The words ‘illegal alien’ will be retired. This will change, whether it’s now or six months from now or 10 years from now,” said Rep. Joaquin Castro, Texas Democrat. “The question for all of us is whether we today will do the right thing our whether a few years from now will apologize.”
But Republicans said the library shouldn’t be ignoring what federal law says.
“Vote yes to uphold the laws of this land,” said Rep. Tom Graves, Georgia Republican.
The bill still needs approval of the Senate to take effect, but the House vote could force a rethink at the library anyway.
The library’s move is the latest in a years-long battle by immigrant-rights activists to try to change the language of the immigration debate. They object to the term “alien,” arguing that it dehumanizes those the term is aimed at, and the bristle at the word “illegal,” arguing that while actions can be against the law, people cannot.
They have suggested alternatives such as “undocumented immigrants” or “undocumented workers.”
On the other side of the debate, those who favor stricter enforcement argue that using the word “immigrant” in inaccurate because it implies someone who has gone through the legal process correctly. They also dispute the word “undocumented” as an acceptable alternative, saying that the problem isn’t a lack of documents, but rather the lack of correct, legal documents.
A number of news organizations have changed their rules to prohibit or discourage use of the term “illegal” and “alien.”
The Washington Times uses the term “illegal immigrant.”
The Library of Congress has used “illegal aliens” as a subject heading in its system since1993, but it began to be challenged by outsiders over the last few years.
In March, library officials said they would make the change. But the library rejected the term “undocumented immigrants,” saying that many illegal immigrants do in fact have documents. Instead, they settled on the term “noncitizens” instead of “aliens” and the term “unauthorized immigration” for the general practice of illegal immigration.
“For Illegal aliens, the meeting decided that a heading referring to the act of residing in a place without authorization should be used rather than a heading that describes the people as illegal or unauthorized. For resources about people who reside in a country without authorization, two headings will be assigned, Noncitizens and Unauthorized immigration,” the library said.
Republicans in Congress objected.
Rep. Mike Turner, Ohio Republican, pushed for the House to use the annual appropriations bill government Congress’s spending to stop the change.
Under the new legislation, the library would be strongly encouraged to use the terms that appear in federal law or regulations — which in this case is “illegal alien.”
“The Library of Congress has a duty to provide impartial and accurate access to Americans,” Mr. Turner said after Friday’s vote.
Democrats, though, said the U.S. code is often slow to catch up to the times, having had words such as “negro,” “oriental,” “lunatic” and “retarded” at some point.
• Stephen Dinan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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