"Alien" eliminated from California state labor code

California Gov. Jerry Brown has signed a bill into law that eliminates the word “alien” from the state labor code. I applaud this. The term “alien” is a derogatory term and especially when combined into “illegal alien.” It is reflective of nativist anti-immigrant sentiments and even anti-Latino sentiments since those who rile against undocumented immigrants in large part do this because they are predominantly Latinos such as Mexicans. Brown’s actions and the new law won’t stop some using this emotionally-filled term, but perhaps it will influence others to recognize that such a term is also inhumane. 

We are talking not about aliens but about real human beings who are coming into this country because they have no recourse to provide for their families. They are the victims of economic globalization, coming from countries where many people have been dislocated, especially from rural areas due to transnational economic practices that forces peasants and small farmers off their lands, to be replaced by large-scale commercial agriculture. 

Moreover, no human being in the eyes of God is alien, much less an “illegal alien.” We should keep in mind that wonderful Old Testament passage in Leviticus 19:33-34: “When aliens reside with you in your land, do not molest them. You shall treat the aliens who reside with you no differently than the natives born among you; have the same love for them as for yourself; for you too were once aliens in the land of Egypt.” Although the term alien is used here, it is clearly not done so maliciously and has to be seen in its own historical context. Or the passage from Matthew 25:35: “I was a stranger and you took Me in.” Judeo-Christian beliefs instruct us to deal with strangers not as “illegal aliens” but as fellow human beings, all children of God.

There are more than just faith-based reasons to stop using terms such as “illegal aliens;” there are historical reasons, as well. We need to remember that historically many Mexican immigrants -- including the undocumented -- have crossed into areas that once belonged to colonial Spain, and then belonged to an independent Mexico, and later were conquered by the United States in the 1840s (Manifest Destiny). Immigrants crossed into the Rio Grande; they went to Tejas and California and to cities such as Los Angeles, El Paso, San Antonio, and other Spanish-named cities and states. These names didn’t come from the Mayflower!  They speak to an earlier, but continuing, Hispanic and Latino ethnic and cultural presence within the United States. 

From a larger historical perspective, Latino immigrants, including the undocumented, are coming home to a region of the country that speaks to them in their own language, and where they can find ethnic and cultural safe places. Can we really speak of “illegal aliens” in areas that once belonged to Mexico?  It’s like saying that Jews were “illegal aliens” when they came back to Israel after World War II. History complicates, or should complicate, the discussion of undocumented immigration. 

We need to move the discussion from Donald Trump’s sweeping indictment of many Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists, or the Republican focus on continued militarization of the border, to a more thoughtful, humane and sane discourse based on practical and historical considerations.

Perhaps the law eliminating the term “alien” from California labor code will influence other states to at least begin this more sober discussion. California has led the way in this more humane and pragmatic approach to the issue of undocumented immigrants, such as allowing their undocumented children to receive state financial aid for college; allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses as well as other state resources. Gov. Brown has championed these measures in addition to being one of the most effective state governors in the nation.  So why aren’t pundits and others talking about a draft movement of Brown for President? I would support this as would many others, in California and elsewhere. Viva Brown! 

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here