Several immigrant rights groups have expressed their displeasure at major retailers such as Target and Amazon selling “illegal alien” costumes at their stores and online. In response, Target has pulled the product, and it is not currently available on Amazon.com. Yet, judging by comments below news articles such as this one, online readers at that site can’t seem to understand what all the fuss is about. According to an online poll, 87% of the readers of the NBC news article found the story amusing, and all of the comments below the article are unsympathetic to the cause.
What’s the deal? Why are immigrant rights activists upset about the costume?
The first reason is that the terminology “illegal alien” is offensive, as is its correlate “illegal.” “Illegal alien” is a popular and official term used to refer to people who do not have the proper documentation to remain within US borders. Despite being an official term, “alien” has a popular connotation as a space creature, and thus comes across as harsh when referring to human beings.
Using “illegal” as an adjective or a noun to refer to a person is inappropriate – no one is illegal. There are many possible reasons why migrants may lack the proper documentation to remain in the US borders, but most of the reasons do not involve major infractions of US law. Few of the reasons, in fact, involve any violation of US criminal law. Crossing the border without inspection is a violation of civil law, as is overstaying a tourist, student, or other visa. Those details aside, breaking one law does not render a person “illegal.” Most people have committed some crime in their lives, including jaywalking, driving without their license handy, or drinking underage. None of those activities render a person “illegal,” nor do they make you a “criminal.”
Calling a person an “illegal” or an “illegal alien” is offensive and dehumanizing. It takes the emphasis off of the migrant as a person and redirects it to their presumed “illegality.” Calling migrants “aliens” further dehumanizes them.
Although the costume may be considered to be a joke, the life circumstances of undocumented people in the United States are not a laughing matter. People who lack documentation to remain in the US often face abuses at the hands of their employers, and are forced to accept low wages and bad working conditions. Many long to return home to attend important family functions such as funerals, and cannot, for fear they will not be able to return and continue to secure their family’s livelihood. Many spouses live separated for years; many parents live thousands of miles from their children and depend on phone calls as their only means of communication.
I am sure many of us will see these distasteful costumes on the streets on October 31. I hope many more of us will take part in actions that let undocumented migrants know that we recognize their human rights and humanity.