Calling an Immigrant an ‘Illegal Alien’ to Discriminate Against Them is Now Unlawful in New York City

In New York City, using terms like “illegal alien” and “illegals” to demean, humiliate or offend someone could classify as unlawful discrimination.

The New York City Commission on Human Rights issued a Legal Enforcement Guidance on Discrimination on the Basis of Immigration Status and National Origin document, which focuses on the reality of immigrants — both documented and undocumented — in the city.

“’Alien’ — used in many laws to refer to a ‘noncitizen’ person — is a term that may carry negative connotations and dehumanize immigrants, marking them as ‘other,’” the document says.

The fine for discriminating against someone based on their legitimate or perceived immigration status can amount to up to $250,000 for each violation. These laws apply to employment, housing and other public services.

Aside from using offensive terms against individuals, harassing them for having limited English proficiency or threatening to call ICE on them based on a discriminatory motive are all unlawful.

The protections extend into privately-owned spaces such as gyms, stores, nightclubs and other public spaces.

The document also offers other examples of discrimination in the areas of housing, public accommodations, employment and law enforcement. Some of these examples include the following:

  • “A construction company sponsors a temporary worker for the summer with an H2B visa. The company does not allow the worker to take any breaks for his 12-hour shift, while the company allows U.S. citizen workers to take two breaks during their 12-hour shifts. The company threatens to not sponsor the worker again for next season when he complains.”
  • “An Indian immigrant family complains to their landlord about mold and cockroaches in their unit. The landlord tells them to ‘just deal with it’ and threatens to call ICE if they file a complaint in housing court.”
  • “Classmates repeatedly bully a student who wears a hijab at school, calling her an ‘illegal’ and telling her to ‘take that off, you’re in America now.’ The student tells her teacher and the school administration that she is being bullied. The teacher and school administration, despite being aware of the conduct, have not taken the usual, mandatory measures to end the behavior.”

The guidelines also acknowledge that seemingly neutral laws can have a disparate impact on immigrants, such as policies that require social security numbers or passports for validation.

In media circles, the term “illegal” as an adjective to describe a person is fading out.

The Associated Press (AP) Stylebook — the guidelines most media outlets use — says not to use terms like “alien,” “an illegal” or “illegals” unless directly quoting from another source.

“Except in direct quotes essential to the story, use illegal only to refer to an action, not a person: illegal immigration, but not illegal immigrant,” the AP’s guidelines state. “Acceptable variations include living in or entering a country illegally or without legal permission.”

Carmelyn P. Malalis, the Chair and Commissioner of the NYC Commission on Human Rights, said in a statement that the NYC Commission on Human Rights works to protect everyone from discrimination — including those who are in the country without proper documentation.

“The New York City Human Rights Law is one of the most protective in the nation,” she said. “It protects everyone, regardless of their immigration status. In the face of increasingly hostile national rhetoric, we will do everything in our power to make sure our treasured immigrant communities are able to live with dignity and respect, free of harassment and bias. Today’s guidance makes abundantly clear that there is no room for discrimination in NYC.”

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