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Who Is An Alien?

Imagine, for a moment, the reaction if President Donald Trump had declared his determination to seal our southern border to stop an alien invasion.

There would have been countless memes about flying saucers and E.T.-like creatures showing up without papers, to accompany the condemnation that we actually did see when Trump used the word “invasion” (alien-free) to describe last year’s surge of asylum-seekers and other migrants. Even a president who can be carelessly or calculatedly loose with language has not, to my knowledge, recently used “alien” to describe foreign nationals and their relationship to this country. [EDITOR'S NOTE: As a reader pointed out in a comment after this item was published, Trump has described foreign nationals as "aliens" on multiple occasions, including in his Twitter account.]

But I have done so for years, and so have many of my professional colleagues. The Internal Revenue Code itself defines “resident alien,” as well as the converse “nonresident alien,” whose exposure to the American tax system is more circumscribed. Without giving it a second thought, tax professionals regularly speak and write about rules that apply to “U.S. citizens and resident aliens,” who are subject to income tax on a global basis, regardless of where they actually reside. (Strange but true – a foreigner who lives abroad most of the time can still be considered a U.S. resident for tax purposes in certain circumstances.)

It took an outsider’s perspective to make me stop to consider how archaically demeaning and dehumanizing this term is.

My co-workers and I are collaborating on a new book. The forthcoming title will have a different target audience than our current offering, Looking Ahead: Life, Family Wealth & Business After 55. (OK, I’ll plug the existing book – the latest edition, which we released in 2019, has recently been spending a lot of time on the Amazon best-seller lists in the personal tax category. You can find it right here.)

Barbara Schechter, our copy editor for the new project, flagged the “citizens and resident aliens” terminology in a chapter about cross-border taxation. Barbara is a retired copy editor at The Seattle Times, which follows the Associated Press stylebook. We use the AP stylebook at Palisades Hudson too. But when the AP revised its style a few years ago to instruct writers to avoid calling Earthlings “aliens” except in direct quotations, we’d allowed tax terminology to slip through without paying closer attention to the usage. While the AP gained a lot of attention for eliminating “illegal immigrant” in 2013 – a term we have avoided ever since – a later change to avoid the term “alien” even without the qualifier “illegal” garnered less attention from the media, and from us.

“Is there another way to put this?” Barbara inquired. “Green card holders?”

“Green card holders” would not have been completely correct in the context of the chapter, but an even simpler approach worked perfectly well. The tax rules in question apply equally to “citizens and residents” of the United States. Citizens are subject to U.S. taxation, regardless of where they reside. Anyone who is not a citizen would have to be resident, as defined in the tax law, to be subject to the same regime. The word “aliens” adds absolutely nothing to the discussion, except a term increasingly understood to be pejorative.

In other situations, the phrasing “foreign nationals” will describe citizens of another country who do not hold dual American citizenship. The AP’s thorough stylebook entry on immigration also suggests a variety of specific alternatives: “immigrant,” “emigrant,” “asylum-seeker,” “refugee” and “migrant.” These terms are not interchangeable, and therefore add specificity when writers use them. Removing the dehumanizing term “alien” from Palisades Hudson’s writing completely is therefore not only the right thing to do; it will encourage us to say what we mean, with the benefit of a clearer end product.

Someday, Congress might get around to updating Section 7701(b) of the Internal Revenue Code to eliminate the word “alien,” or at least to limit the term to entities hailing from another planet or star system. It probably won’t be a high priority for lawmakers, though. Here at Palisades Hudson, we can be more considerate and nuanced in our language. Americans coexist with citizens of many nations, and as far as I know, there is not a single alien among them.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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2 Responses to "Who Is An Alien?"

  • Gavin Cohen
    January 16, 2020 - 10:44 pm

    Please see this tweet from our president on 6/17/19: “Next week ICE will begin the process of removing the millions of illegal aliens who have illicitly found their way into the United States. They will be removed as fast as they come in,”

    And this tweet on 5/30/19: “Yesterday, Border Patrol agents apprehended the largest group of illegal aliens ever: 1,036 people who illegally crossed the border in El Paso around 4am. Democrats need to stand by our incredible Border Patrol and finally fix the loopholes at our Border!”

    And this tweet on 6/27/19: “All Democrats just raised their hands for giving millions of illegal aliens unlimited healthcare. How about taking care of American Citizens first!? That’s the end of that race!”

    And please do a cursory internet search before making this statement on your company’s public forum: “Even a president who can be carelessly or calculatedly loose with language has not, to my knowledge, recently used “alien” to describe foreign nationals and their relationship to this country.”

  • Larry Elkin
    January 17, 2020 - 9:24 am

    Thank you for correcting my oversight. Clearly, I spend negligible time in the twitterverse. But since the president spends so much time there, I should have more thoroughly investigated his comments there on this topic. We will add an editor’s note at the appropriate point in the text to avoid misleading future readers who may not see your comment.