Written by: Eddie Lopez
Although the definition may be rightfully used in context, some words can carry a type of prejudice that can’t be overlooked. On August 10th when Governor Jerry Brown signed bill SB-432, introduced by Democratic Senator Tony Mendoza of Artesia, this notion was put up for debate. The bill removes the term “alien” from the California labor code that is used to describe foreign-born workers, also removing the state’s preference for hiring US citizens on public works projects during periods of unemployment. Although the law comes into effect next year on January 1st, Senator Mendoza, also a Chairman of the Senate Labor and Industrial Relations Committee, acknowledged Governor Brown’s move as a step toward modernizing California law because the term “alien” or “illegal alien” is considered derogatory by a good portion of the three million undocumented immigrants in the state. This legislative action is most definitely a result of the changing public perception; however, there are still questions on how it may or may not re-define the significance of citizenship in California, other pro-immigrant states, and ultimately the nation.
California’s legislature is no stranger to granting undocumented immigrants benefits. In fact, those who are undocumented can be part of the “California Package”, a type of state level citizenship. It values all those who contribute to California’s economy, granting immigrants rights that are restricted at the federal level with most qualifications not based on immigrant status. Bills granting access to driver’s licenses, in-state college tuition, and healthcare to children are a part of the “package.” Governor Brown has signed legislation in the past to allow non-citizens in high school to serve as election poll workers and to protect the rights of immigrant minors in civil lawsuits. Despite all these benefits, Brown has shown moments where he has retained from moving forward with some ideas. Last year, he vetoed a bill that would have allowed legal permanent residents to serve on juries. The advocacy of immigrant rights in California has made significant progress, but has left some citizens confused, and/or upset about the blurring lines between the authorized and unauthorized immigrants. The connotations of illegal aliens seem to be fading away as immigrants integrate themselves more into society, unlike earlier times when the term seemed to isolate the group away.
The term “alien” was first used in the state in 1937, and between the 1950s and 1990s, newspapers began to use the term “illegal aliens.” The sci-fi implications of “alien” combined with “illegal” created a type of hiring hierarchy, with preference going to U.S. citizens from California, to citizens from other states, then to the “illegal aliens.” During this period, the idea of how a person entered the states became the prominent discriminating factor. In 1994, the term, along with others like “illegal immigrant”, “illegal worker,” and “illegal migrant,” reached a peak in newspaper articles with 82% of their language being associated with these terms. But as people, immigrants and citizens alike, began to view the term as a micro-aggression referring to subtle, often unconscious racist offense, it began to lose its popularity within media. In 2013, the four terms made up a combined 57% of the language, a considerable percentage compared to 1994.
Although the re-interpretation of the term won’t change policy towards undocumented population, the more compassionate regard towards the usage of “alien” can change the conversation toward the topic. Right now, it is a very much split conversation, with many still against or for the integration of immigrants. In Huntington Park, the announcement of the appointment of two undocumented immigrants in city commissions has created a passionate debate among the city’s residents and provides insight into the current situation regarding how citizenship is being defined within the state. While removing the term from the labor code does help, getting on the same page with the subject, or even definition seems to be the elusive problem.