The Library of Congress Will Ditch the Subject Heading “Illegal Aliens”

Student activists are to thank for the change

Library of Congress
The Library of Congress, where the subject term "illegal alien" will no longer be used. Uwe Kazmaier/imageBROKER/Corbis

What’s in a name? When it comes to Library of Congress subject headings, there’s plenty. The subject lines are an integral part of the world’s most widely used library indexing tool, the basis for thousands of daily searches around the globe. And now, reports the Dartmouth, the Library of Congress will revise its subject heading of “illegal aliens” due to feedback from student activists.

In 2014, the Dartmouth Coalition for Immigration Reform, Equality and DREAMers (CoFIRED), a group dedicated to advancing the rights of undocumented students, first petitioned the Library of Congress to get rid of the term “illegal alien” in its cataloging system in favor of the term “undocumented immigrant.”

Since a person cannot technically be illegal, critics argue the term should be dropped, even when immigrants’ actions are legally unsanctioned. The term is increasingly characterized as a racial slur, especially when it is used to dehumanize individual people.

In the past, that argument went against mainstream use of the word. A 1996 Pew study found that 82 percent of language referring to undocumented immigrants in the United States used the word “illegal.” But in recent years, the term “illegal” has slowly dropped off, in part due to news organizations’ refusal to use the word. In 2013, the Associated Press stopped using the terms “illegal immigrant” and “illegal” to describe people, along with a number of other publications. A similar movement to get rid of the term “alien” is underway.

The Library of Congress initially rejected CoFIRED’s petition to replace “illegal alien” with “undocumented immigrant,” writes the Dartmouth, because the terms are not synonymous. But more voices joined the chorus after the group’s 2014 petition. In January, the American Library Association adopted a resolution urging the Library of Congress to replace the term and use “undocumented immigrant” instead.

In response, the Library of Congress convened a panel and reviewed the option. Though the panel still objected to the use of “undocumented immigrant,” arguing that not all immigrants are undocumented, that many immigrants do have documentation of some type and that the term is not widely in use in law, it decided to revise the term “aliens” to “non-citizens.” The “illegal aliens” subject heading will now be turned into two subjects: “non-citizens” and “unauthorized immigration.”

In a statement on the change, the Library of Congress concluded that "the meaning of Aliens is often misunderstood and should be revised to Noncitizens, and that the phrase illegal aliens has become pejorative." The Library of Congress' revisions will appear on its subject heading list no earlier than May, and following that it will update the headings on existing catalogue records. 

Though the change isn’t exactly what student activists suggested, the outcome was still what CoFIRED desired. “With this change we hope meaningful conversation about the dehumanization of immigrants will be sparked across the nation,” the group said on its Facebook page. And what better place to have that conversation than in a library?

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