Meet the undocumented students who got the Library of Congress to ditch ‘illegal aliens’

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

If you visit your local library today to research undocumented immigrants, you’ll probably find the books are housed in a section with the subject heading "illegal aliens"—a term that immigrant-rights groups say is racially charged and dehumanizing. The nation’s leading news organizations, including this one, have banned the phrase unless it’s used in a quote. But soon that’s going to change, thanks to a group of undocumented students at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.

Melissa Aracely Padilla said she was at the Dartmouth College library researching immigration articles when she noticed they were all categorized with an odd subject heading. The 25-year-old senior said all the articles she was reading presented undocumented immigrants in a neutral light, so she didn’t understand why they were all labeled with the subject heading “illegal alien,” a term that over the years has widely been recognized as a derogatory term.

“After seeing the dehumanizing word [illegal alien] so many times, I wondered if that’s how Dartmouth thought of undocumented students,” Padilla told Fusion in a telephone interview.


“I didn’t think I could say anything, because it was a [subject heading] in a library,” said Padilla, who was born in Mexico and was not authorized to live in the U.S. until she became a resident recently.


Padilla, along with a group led by undocumented students, tried to get the library to update the subject heading, but quickly learned the issue was much bigger than their university library. Dartmouth College, like most libraries in the U.S., relies on the Library of Congress Subject Headings, the most widely adopted indexing language in libraries around the world.

Librarians from the Dartmouth library partnered with the students in July 2014 to submit a petition to the Library of Congress to replace “illegal alien” with “undocumented immigrants.” Their initial petition was denied months later in December. The following year, the students garnered some major backup from Tina Gross, a catalog librarian at St. Cloud State University, who offered to bring their concerns to the American Library Association (ALA), the largest library association in the world.


Gross proposed a resolution that ultimately was almost unanimously supported by ALA leaders.

“Referring to undocumented immigrants as ‘illegal’ is increasingly viewed as dehumanizing, offensive, inflammatory, and even a racial slur,” read the ALA resolution sent to the Library of Congress after it was approved in January 2016. “The ALA on behalf of its members urges the Library of Congress to change the subject heading illegal aliens to undocumented immigrants.”


On March 22nd the Library of Congress announced the heading "illegal aliens" will be canceled and replaced with “noncitizens” and “unauthorized immigration.” The heading "aliens" will also be revised to noncitizens.

The decision will have an impact on public and university libraries across the country who rely on the Library of Congress to help organize and catalog every item in their collection.


In a summary of their decision, the division in charge of subject headings "concluded that the meaning of Aliens is often misunderstood and should be revised to Noncitizens, and that the phrase illegal aliens has become pejorative."

The division said it did not approve undocumented immigrant as a heading because it believed the term is not a synonym for illegal aliens. “[N]ot all undocumented people are, or intend to be, immigrants, and many of them do in fact have documents of some type,” read the summary from the Policy and Standards Division of the Library of Congress.


The Library of Congress first established the heading “aliens, illegal” in 1980. It was revised to its current form, “illegal aliens,” in 1993, during an era when the country was debating whether to limit social services like medical services and public schools to undocumented immigrants.

“The change signals the Library of Congress and the federal government are recognizing what the immigration movement has been saying for years, that no human being is illegal,” said Oscar Cornejo Casares, a junior at Dartmouth who co-founded the student group Dartmouth Coalition For Immigration Reform, Equality and DREAMers, or CoFIRED.


“This means our experiences as undocumented immigrants are valid and are part of this community,” said Casares, 25, who currently has temporary legal status that protects him from deportation through President Obama’s executive action known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.