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A Short History of a Controversial Word in the Immigration Debate

Image via Beth Cortez-NeavelTexas Standard
When did we start calling undocumented immigrants 'aliens'?

From Texas Standard:

The term "alien" is used to describe many things.

It's the monster that claws its way out of bodies in the Sigourney Weaver franchise. It's the odd-looking form with almond shaped eyes which trolls trailer parks, probing unsuspecting earthlings. One of them allegedly piloted a craft that crash-landed in Roswell, N.M. Maybe an alien will soon may ring your doorbell, shouting "trick-or-treat."

The word "alien" has many uses, but Rep. Joaquín Castro says the word has no business in the official language of the United States. He's calling for the word to be banned because he says it is dehumanizing.


Laurel Stvan is in the business of dissecting words; she chairs the linguistics department at the University of Texas at Arlington. She says the word, rooted in Latin, originally meant "other" or "else."

"Part of the current negative emotion today has to do with the power of 'alien' as a noun, rather than as an adjective," Stvan says. "Usually nouns are more negatively used to portray a group because they reduce it to just a single characteristic."

What you'll learn in this segment:

– The etymological roots of the word "alien"

– The word's change in meaning and usage over time

– The U.S. legal definition of "alien"

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.
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