Department of Justice Instructs Agency Press Officers to Call Immigrants ‘Illegal Aliens’

By Kenrya Rankin Jul 25, 2018

In its continued fight to dehumanize immigrants of color, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has reportedly instructed United States attorneys offices to use a term that immigrant rights activists have long identified as criminalizing.

CNN reported last night (July 24) that it obtained an email that tells Executive Office for United States Attorneys public information officers to adopt the DOJ Office of Public Affairs‘ practice of referring to people of undocumented immigration status as “illegal aliens” in press statements.

From the email, whose subject is “Describing Alien Status in a press release”:


The word “undocumented” is not based in U.S. code and should not be used to describe someone’s illegal presence in the country. If an alien is legally present in the U.S., or that client’s legal status in the U.S. is unknown, unclear or absent from the public record at the time a press release is being issued, it is appropriate to describe their country of citizenship…. They should be described according to their citizenship, not their city or state of residence. For instance, “a Honduran citizen residing in Toledo” is correct. “Toledo man” doesn’t accurately describe his residency.

The guidance specifically refers to 8 U.S. Code § 1101, which provides definitions for the Immigration and Nationality Act, and reads: “The term ‘alien’ means any person not a citizen or national of the United States.”

It does not include the word “illegal" in this definition.

Immigrant rights and racial justice organizations have pushed for the abandonment of the word in describing humans.  In 2010, Colorlines publisher Race Forward (then the Applied Research Center) launched Drop the I-Word, a campaign dedicated to pushing media outlets to stop using it. In 2013, The Associated Press updated its policy to stop using the word in reference to people; it’s a decision that impacts reporting for publications that reach more than half the world’s population.

The need to reject the criminalization of immigrants is especially relevant in a time when the Trump administration has revoked deportation protection for migrants escaping disaster, detained their children in direct violation of the Flores agreement and enforced a “zero tolerance” policy that locks up asylum-seekers.