Cover: Language, Labels, and the DHS Lexicon

Language, Labels, and the DHS Lexicon

Analysis to Support a More-Inclusive Lexicon for Securing the Homeland

Published Jun 19, 2023

by Douglas C. Ligor, Jennifer J. Li, Peter Nguyen, Julia Vidal Verástegui

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Research Questions

  1. How can DHS improve the terminology used to refer to people in certain racial, ethnic, national, and religious groups?
  2. How can DHS develop a departmental lexicon consistent with current Executive Orders, the objectives of the U.S. Citizenship Act, and recently issued departmental policies regarding the use of certain terminology?
  3. How can DHS create an organizational culture that supports the lasting implementation of updated terminology?

In this report, the authors provide the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's (DHS's) Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties with analysis of the department's use of terminology in referring to people in certain racial, ethnic, national, and religious groups. The authors also identify ways to improve departmental documentation, processes, and procedures and create an organizational culture that supports the lasting implementation of updated terminology.

This comprehensive analytic document (1) contains guidance that would enable DHS to update terminology that aligns with the proposed 2021 U.S. Citizenship Act and (2) identifies ways for DHS to foster an organizational culture that supports the ongoing use of the updated terminology in three principal categories: immigration, public order policing, and terrorism/counterterrorism. This report will inform DHS efforts to develop a departmental lexicon consistent with current Executive Orders, the objectives of the U.S. Citizenship Act, and recently issued departmental policies regarding the use of certain terminology.

Key Findings

  • The current DHS lexicon, both formalized and informal, contains terms and language that are insulting, demeaning, dehumanizing, offensive, embarrassing, or othering or otherwise make individuals feel uncomfortable, marginalized, disrespected, or unsafe.
  • The lexicon fails to consider and incorporate specific terms that are inclusive and person-centric.
  • The lexicon includes terms recognized as harmful and is not consistent with best practices for law enforcement.
  • The DHS lexicon shortcomings are most likely due to organizational culture, processes, and procedures.

Recommendations

  • DHS should consider instituting process and procedural changes that will keep the department's lexicon from getting stale, static, or otherwise inclusive of negative terminology
  • DHS should also consider updating, revising, amending, or otherwise issuing new departmentwide directives, instructions, manuals, and policy memoranda to stress the use of inclusive, person-centric language by all employees. This effort from leadership should be done in a manner that aligns with departmental diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts and incorporates these principles.
  • DHS should create mechanisms to support the incorporation of inclusive and person-centric language.
  • Training for all DHS personnel, including those in the highest positions, is essential. It must thoroughly prepare the top leaders in DHS agencies to model and promote the new lexicon and the ethos associated with it.
  • DHS should establish a standard by which using a bias-free lexicon is a matter of professional responsibility.
  • DHS should incorporate lexicon issues into current DHS leadership and employee training programs.

This research was sponsored by the DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL) and conducted in the Infrastructure, Immigration, and Security Operations Program of the RAND Homeland Security and Defense Center (HSRD).

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

RAND is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis. RAND's publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions of its research clients and sponsors.