Immigration Law

Use of term 'noncitizen' is 'unfortunate trend in caselaw,' 9th Circuit judge says

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A federal appeals judge used a concurrence to criticize his colleagues for using the word “noncitizen” instead of the statutory term “alien” in an immigration opinion last week.

Judge Carlos T. Bea of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at San Francisco said the substitution of “noncitizen” for “alien” is an “unfortunate trend in caselaw.” has coverage.

“The nonstatutory word ‘noncitizen’ has attained a certain prominence throughout the federal judiciary,” Bea wrote in his Sept. 8 concurrence. “Of course, the term is textually inaccurate as applied to the petitioner in this case, who is a citizen of Mexico. Indeed, most of the petitioners appearing before this circuit are citizens of one country or another.”

Bea said federal immigration statutes concern themselves with “aliens.”

“I respectfully suggest my colleagues hew closely to the laws as they are written, both in form and in substance,” he wrote.

In her principal opinion, Chief Judge Mary H. Murguia wrote in a footnote that she described habeas petitioner Lexis Hernandez Avilez as a noncitizen for two reasons.

First, use of the term “has become a common practice” of the U.S. Supreme Court and the Department of Justice’s Board of Immigration Appeals. The footnote cited opinions by Justices Amy Coney Barrett, Sonia Sotomayor and Brett Kavanaugh.

Second, careful writers avoid terms that reasonable readers might find offensive and distracting. The word “alien” can suggest “strange,” “different,” “repugnant,” “hostile” and “opposed,” the footnote said. The word “noncitizen,” which is synonymous with “alien,” “avoids such connotations.”

Bea, however, said the word “alien” is “not a pejorative nor an insult.” He didn’t consider the word insulting when he was in deportation proceedings, Bea said.

Bea was born in Spain and came to the United States as a child, he said in an oral history published by the Ninth Judicial Circuit Historical Society. He later became a legal permanent resident but lost his residency status after living in Madrid.

He received a student visa, however, to continue his studies at Stanford University. He went through deportation proceedings in hopes of getting review of his loss of residency status.

He won before the Board of Immigration Appeals.

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