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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.

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