House balks at Library of Congress plan to drop term ‘illegal alien’

The main reading room in the Library of Congress, where a proposal to eliminate the term “illegal alien” in the library’s catalogs has sparked a backlash from Congress. (Photo by Carol M. Highsmith/Library of Congress)

WASHINGTON – House Republicans are trying to block a Library of Congress proposal to replace the term “illegal aliens” with “noncitizens” in its subject listings, a move the GOP called an attempt to “unilaterally censor these terms.”

But Democrats said keeping the old language preserves a “dehumanizing” term and accused Republicans of politicizing the debate over the fiscal 2017 budget bill for the legislative branch, which includes funding for the library.

That bill is expected to be debated on the House floor Thursday.

The proposed change was unveiled March 22 and backed by the American Library Association, the Dartmouth University Library and the Law Library of Congress, leading Republicans to include language in the budget bill requiring use of the old term.

“By acting in the interest of partisanship, the Library of Congress is undermining its credibility and ignoring its responsibility to provide the American people with impartial and accurate access to its many resources,” said Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, in a prepared statement on the change.

But Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, said it is the Republicans who are playing politics with the language.

“This makes an otherwise bipartisan bill partisan,” Grijalva said of the fight over the budget bill. “The majority decided to make a political statement on a bill that doesn’t need to be partisan, just the money needed to fund legislative operations.”

The Library of Congress acknowledged in a news release on the proposed change that the term had taken on a pejorative meaning, but officials there said the change is mainly one of convenience.

“The focus of our cataloging and indexing is to help researchers,” said Jennifer Gavin, a library spokeswoman. “As language changes, we change subject headers to reflect recent changes in terminology.”

Gavin said that even though the library announced the proposed change in a March 22 news release, it still planned to open the proposal for public comment last month, as it is required to do.

Even though other library groups had called for the change, Gavin said that “if we are instructed by law not to do this,” the Library of Congress would comply.

But groups like Promise Arizona are siding with opponents of the term, which they said prevents progress by people living in this country without legal permission.

“There is a daily struggle to let the rest of the world know that these people are human beings who live full and rich lives, who have families,” said James Garcia, a Promise Arizona spokesman. “‘Illegal aliens’ gets in the way.”

While the term has been used as a subject heading since 1910 and is one of the Library of Congress’ oldest, American University linguist-in-residence Robin Barr said that it has taken on a derogatory meaning.

“Saying someone is illegal convicts them without any due process,” Barr said. “It automatically classes them as part of a criminal subgroup.”

Democrats are expected to offer amendments that would restore the library’s proposed language change when the bill reaches the floor.