The Bulletin

Virginia lawmakers OK bill to replace the term ‘alien’ in state code

By: - February 28, 2022 1:54 pm

The sun rises over the Virginia Capitol. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

In a section of Virginia law dealing with minority-owned businesses, the wording specifies those businesses must be owned by a U.S. citizen or a “legal resident aliens.”

Another law says gun dealers cannot hire an “illegal alien” as a seller.

Those are just two of dozens of places the word “alien” appears in Virginia code to refer to both documented and undocumented immigrants. But the word won’t remain there for long.

In a nod to a growing consensus that the word alien is offensive, the Virginia General Assembly approved legislation to update the state code with more appropriate language.

For example, the bill replaces “legal resident aliens” with “lawfully admitted permanent residents.” Similarly, “illegal alien” is replaced with “illegally present in the United States.”

Del. Alfonso Lopez, D-Arlington, the bill’s sponsor, noted that even federal immigration agencies have stopped using the word “due to its use as a slur.” Last year, the Biden administration ordered Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection to stop using the words “alien” and “assimilation” when referring to immigrants, according to the Washington Post. In a statement issued after the bill cleared the Republican-led House of Delegates earlier this month, Lopez said Virginia is poised to become the first state in the South to follow suit.

“As a nation with such a rich and proud immigrant history, it’s unacceptable for our laws to continue to use language that has become synonymous with xenophobia and racial bigotry,” Lopez said. “This bill sends an important message: that immigrants are welcome in Virginia.”

The bill won’t remove every reference in the Virginia code, Lopez said in legislative hearings, because some are tied to specific federal programs, such as the SAVE (Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements) program that allows state and local government to check the immigration status of anyone applying for a license or public benefit.

“We’ve exempted each of the areas where there might be a problematic policy issue,” Lopez said.

Some Republicans voted against the legislation but there were few speeches in opposition. The bill passed the House 78-19. On Monday, it passed the state Senate 22-18.

On the Senate floor, Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, said the bill was being offered because “apparently some people think the word alien has negative implications.”

“I don’t. But some people do,” Edwards said. “So we’re changing the name to make it clear.”

The bill now goes to Gov. Glenn Youngkin for final action.

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.