‘Words matter’: New York City set to remove offensive immigrant terms from codes of law

View of the New York City Hall
New York City Hall (Photo via Getty Images)

New York is set to become the first major American city to remove legal language that many believe refers to undocumented residents in a negative light.

The City Council passed Thursday legislation that would expunge the terms “alien,” “illegal immigrant” and “illegal migrant” from local laws, rules, orders, city documents and other materials. The terms will be replaced by the word “noncitizen.”

Forty-six of the 50 City Council members present at the May 28 remote stated meeting supported the legislation.

“No human being is illegal,” said City Council Speaker Corey Johnson in a statement. “This degrading terminology never belonged in our laws, in our language, or in our lives. By taking this step, New York City would become the first major city in the United States to remove these offensive terms from its laws. It is my hope that other big cities will follow suit.”

Queens City Councilman Francisco Moya, who sponsored the legislation, stressed that the change is not a matter of political correctness, but rather that the terms are outdated — and are often used to degrade an undocumented person.

“These words are outdated and loaded words used to dehumanize the people they describe. It’s time to retire them,” Moya said in a statement. “Words matter. The language we choose to use has power and consequences. It’s time we as a city use our language to acknowledge people as people, rather than to dehumanize them and divide us.”

The legislation excludes any direct references in the City Charter or Administrative Code to a federal law or program, the Council member noted.

Seven City Council members co-sponsored the legislation, including Brooklyn’s Farah Louis; Queens’ Daniel Dromm and Costa Constantinides; and Manhattan’s Ben Kallos, Keith Powers, Carlina Rivera and Helen Rosenthal.

The four City Council members who voted against the bill Thursday were Staten Island’s Joe Borelli and Steven Matteo, Queens’ Robert Holden and Brooklyn’s Kalman Yeger.

The Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs and the Coalition of Asian American Children and Families spoke in favor of the legislation at a January City Council hearing.

Mayor Bill de Blasio is expected to sign the bill into law. The legislation takes effect 60 days after its enactment. 

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