Remove term ‘illegal alien’ from N.J. statutes, lawmaker says

By: - June 14, 2022 7:25 am

Immigrants stand for the national anthem during a naturalization ceremony at Liberty State Park in Jersey City. A New Jersey state senator wants to rewrite New Jersey’s statutes to eliminate all references to immigrants as “aliens.” (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

In New Jersey statutes about education, taxes, and even lottery prizes, undocumented immigrants are referred to as “illegal aliens” more than 80 times. 

That term may not remain there too long under a new bill that would change the outdated term to a more humanizing one.

“When I hear alien, I think of another planet — that’s what we use that word for. Not people, just because they’re from another country,” said Sen. Nilsa Cruz-Perez (D-Camden). “It’s important that they know they are welcome here.” 

The legislation (S2599) would replace all references to “alien” and “illegal alien” in New Jersey statutes with “foreign national” and “undocumented foreign national.” 

Under the bill, the only time “aliens” would be allowed to describe immigrants in legislation or documents from state agencies is when quoting someone or referring to another state or federal agency’s text. 

Cruz-Perez, who is of Puerto Rican descent and is a member of the Latino legislative caucus, said she introduced the bill to remove the insulting term because it dehumanizes immigrants. The bill refers to the phrase as “offensive language” and says the country’s laws should refrain from language that ostracizes people born outside the United States.

The term “alien” also adds to the stigma that immigrants are made to feel and invalidates their contributions, she said. 

New Jersey is home to more than 460,000 undocumented immigrants, including more than 130,000 who pay taxes. A Make the Road New Jersey study estimates that undocumented workers contributed $1 billion to the state’s unemployment fund over the last 10 years. 

“These are people who put our food on the table, who work, who are part of the community,” said Cruz-Perez. 

The measure advanced unanimously at Monday’s Senate state government committee, with no testimony for or against the bill. The Assembly bill has yet to be heard in committee.

Similar legislation has been introduced in Congress and other states, including Texas and Colorado. President Joe Biden ordered federal immigration agencies not to use terms like “illegal alien” and “assimilation.” U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has also ceased using the phrase. 

Cruz-Perez said she’d like to see the federal government do more to make the pathway to citizenship easier for people who have been living in the United States and are often escaping violence in search of a better life. 

“I want to see them become citizens,” she said. “They deserve it, and we need to see it happen very soon.” 

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Sophie Nieto-Munoz
Sophie Nieto-Munoz

Sophie Nieto-Muñoz, a New Jersey native and former Trenton statehouse reporter for NJ.com, shined a spotlight on the state’s crumbling unemployment system and won several awards for investigative reporting from the New Jersey Press Association. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists for her report on PetSmart's grooming practices, which was also recognized by the New York Press Club. Sophie speaks Spanish and is proud to connect to the Latinx community through her reporting.

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