As Donald Trump brings rhetorical barbs against immigrants to new lows on the presidential campaign trail, California lawmakers are changing the state's official vocabulary for describing the foreign-born. In the coming weeks, Gov. Jerry Brown is expected to sign a bill that removes the word "alien" from the state's labor code. On Thursday, the state Assembly voted nearly unanimously to do so.
The bill’s author, Sen. Tony Mendoza, a Democrat from towns east of Los Angeles, says he wants to provide a much-needed change to outdated and discriminatory provisions of the labor code that date to the Great Depression. An alien, according to the existing code, is someone who is “not a born or fully naturalized citizen of the United States.” Another section of the code outlines how the state should extend employment preferences under specified public works contracts: first to citizens of California, then to citizens of other states, and then “aliens.” The bill strikes both those sections.
The move is largely symbolic. The state repealed most of those public works sections decades ago, even though it left the provision about hiring order intact. And existing California law extends the same employment rights to everyone regardless of immigration status. That’s all the more reason to modernize the language, say proponents.
“ 'Alien' is now commonly considered a derogatory term for a foreign-born person and has very negative connotations,” Mendoza said after the Senate approved the bill in May. “[The legislation] will delete this outdated, discriminatory and unnecessary reference.”
Federal law defines alien as “any person not a citizen or national of the United States.” But Mendoza said that doesn’t make the term any less offensive. “We in California often seem to disagree with what the federal law is doing,” the senator told the Inland Empire-based Press-Enterprise of Riverside on Thursday. “Just because they have that word alien in the vocabulary, doesn’t make it right.”
The term is increasingly unpopular. In 2007, according to a Pew Research study, 21 percent of news stories examining immigration used the phrase “illegal alien”; in 2013, only 5 percent of such stories did.
California offers some of the strongest labor protections to undocumented and immigrant workers in the nation. The state recently approved laws designed to crack down on employers that use immigration status of workers as a means of retaliating against employees. Another one expands state oversight of employers who recruit foreign labor.