When progress is made, language must reflect it. The problem is, this involves more than people avoiding outdated or offensive terminology. Sometimes, the government must step in to update databases, signs, and more to match our enlightened times. Fortunately, we now have a government that cares about doing this, and, in fact, is moving things forward.
On Thursday, the Library of Congress (LOC) announced it would no longer use the term “illegal alien” as a subject heading for organizing materials. Instead, the LOC will change the subject headings “aliens” to “noncitizens” and “illegal aliens” to “noncitizens” and “illegal immigration.” Republican Sen. Ted Cruz and Sen. Mike Braun complained, urging the LOC not to cave to “a politically-motivated and Orwellian attempt to manipulate and control language.” However, the LOC shot back, explaining that the new terms are “broader” and “more accurately and clearly refer to the issues they cover.”
The LOC was prepared to change these terms in 2016 until Republicans threw one of their famous fits. Desperate to stop the change, Republicans added a measure to a House spending bill that required the LOC to keep using “aliens” and “illegal aliens” in their subject headings despite the fact the LOC already decided to abandon those offensive and misleading terms.
The LOC’s success follows memos that President Biden issued earlier this year ordering U.S. immigration enforcement agencies to change the way they talk about immigrants. As U.S. Customs and Border Protection Acting Commissioner Troy Miller explained, “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.”
In a separate development, Secretary Deb Haaland on Friday announced that the U.S. Department of the Interior will review racially derogatory terms in place names of federal lands and replace them with appropriate words. A new Derogatory Geographic Names Task Force will consult with the public and tribal representatives on changes. For starters, Haaland identified “squaw” as a pejorative term for Indigenous women. According to the Board on Geographic Names, this word is part of over 650 federal land unit names, and some states have already banned its use within their borders.
The words Americans use for people, places, and things has changed dramatically since our nation’s founding. We need a government that acknowledges this reality and is committed to updating government communications accordingly as times change. Republicans can cry, kick, and scream all they want, but the Biden administration is getting the job done.