Hundreds of women march outside the Justice Department as part of a rally calling for "an end to family detention" and in opposition to the immigration policies of the Trump administration, in Washington, U.S., June 28, 2018.

© 2018 Reuters

The US Department of Justice (DOJ) sent an email mandating that public information officials at the US attorney’s offices use “illegal aliens” instead of “undocumented immigrants” in their press materials.

During a week when the Trump administration failed to meet a court-imposed deadline to reunify families separated at the US border, it’s easy to overlook this one email, sent on Wednesday.

We should not.

The DOJ’s determination to insist on use of the term “illegal alien” is significant. The word illegal alone, in the context of immigration, casts a dark and misleading cloud implying that immigrants who cross a border without authorization have no rights.

President Donald Trump has used “rapists”, “animals” and “criminal aliens” interchangeably when talking about undocumented immigrants . Even on the world stage he has defaulted to racial divisiveness, remarking that immigration is “changing the culture” in Europe, and that European countries need to “watch themselves.”

This DOJ email has to be seen, in this larger context, as yet more evidence of the Administration’s dangerous attitudes towards immigration.

Words have power, and perhaps the Trump administration hopes that by changing this language, they can better justify their anti-immigrant policies, like the traumatic family separation at the Southwestern border and federal funding increases to arrest and lock up unprecedented numbers of deportable immigrants.

Even the “Americanness” of naturalized US citizens is being questioned. US Citizenship, and Immigration Services announced earlier this summer that a newly established office would investigate and seek to denaturalize those who committed fraud on their citizenship applications. Denaturalization cases have always been very rare, and this new move gives reason to worry that this could change. The initiative has already targeted a 63-year-old Miami grandmother for not disclosing her minor involvement in her boss’s fraud scheme – even though she had not even been charged with a crime at the time she applied for citizenship.

Hateful and dehumanizing rhetoric at every level is dangerous, and it lays the groundwork for abusive policies.