Aliens, Aggravated Felons and Worse: When Words Breed Fear and Fear Breeds Injustice

43 Pages Posted: 5 Dec 2015 Last revised: 7 Jul 2016

Date Written: October 2, 2015


As presidential candidates casually and inaccurately throw the term “anchor baby” into public discourse, the time is right to examine the Immigration and Nationality Act for many other examples of misleading language in the statute. This article undertakes the critical task of examining how the language of immigration law, using prevailing immigration metaphors, manipulates perceptions of noncitizens. From the use of the term “alien” to describe any noncitizen and emphasize otherness, to describing “prosecutorial” enforcement decisions to strengthen the alien-as-criminal narrative, these word choices are significant. This is especially true when noncitizens are interacting with the criminal justice system. These words and metaphors find their way into the collective subconscious and impact cognitive bias against immigrant communities. This article identifies several terms that are particularly problematic, then advocates for alternative language that more accurately reflects of the definitions provided by the INA.

Keywords: immigration, alien, aggravated felony, language, rhetoric, metaphor

JEL Classification: K39

Suggested Citation

Torstveit Ngara, Emily, Aliens, Aggravated Felons and Worse: When Words Breed Fear and Fear Breeds Injustice (October 2, 2015). Stanford Journal of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN:

Emily Torstveit Ngara (Contact Author)

University of Baltimore School of Law ( email )

1420 N. Charles Street
Baltimore, MD 21218
United States
410-837-5732 (Phone)
410-837-4776 (Fax)

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