TRENTON – "Illegal aliens" could be on their way out of New Jersey’s laws, replaced by "undocumented foreign nationals," under a bill advanced Monday by a Senate committee.

The Senate State Government, Wagering, Tourism, and Historic Preservation Committee voted 4-0 to advance a bill, S2599, that would update the terminology in state statutes that refer to foreign nationals as ‘aliens’ and ‘illegal aliens.’

Those would be replaced by "foreign national" and "undocumented foreign national," respectively, in laws referencing a person’s immigration status.

The proposed law would prohibit agencies in the state’s executive branch from using the terms "alien" and "illegal alien" in any proposed or final rule, regulation, interpretation, publication or other document, display or sign issued by the agency.

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“The words we use to describe individuals in statutes are extremely important due to the power they have to isolate and dehumanize communities,” said Sen. Nilsa Cruz-Perez, D-Camden, the bill’s sponsor.

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“As a nation of immigrants, our laws should discontinue the use of terms that actively ostracize those in our country who may have been born elsewhere,” Cruz-Perez said. “Especially in the context of an issue as contentious as immigration, discontinuing use of the terms ‘alien’ and ‘illegal alien’ will establish a more welcoming environment for incoming foreign nationals and offer recognition of their personhood in the laws of this state.”

History of changing words

The proposal was first made in 2016. Only once before today had it gotten a committee approval – in 2018 in the Senate, but it went no further.

The Law Revision Commission, which reviews state statutes to recommend modernizations to the Legislature, meets Thursday to consider a draft final report in which it suggests removing the word "inmate" from the statutes, in favor of ‘person’ or ‘person who is incarcerated.’

From time to time, the Legislature takes up bills that remove words from the state’s laws that were once commonplace but came to be seen as demeaning. A 2010 law, for instance, struck phrases like 'mentally retarded,' 'feeble-minded' and 'the insane' and 'the mentally ill' from the books.

A 2020 bill would have replaced “postpartum depression” with “perinatal mood disorders,” but it wasn’t considered for a vote.

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