Undocumented Migration is No Joke – Neither is the Illegal Alien Costume

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.

See this for the stories of some undocumented migrants in the US.  And, visit CHIRLA to find out about their current campaigns in support of migrants’ rights.


  1. I had guest on my radio show on last week to discuss the DREAM Act, and part of the discussion centered around the racism that is behind much of the immigration debate. I now refuse to call the people who have migrated to the United States and lack the proper documents “illegal aliens” for all of the reasons listed above. I use the term undocumented immigrants.

    I have not seen the “costumes” yet, but I am sure that I will not be surprised to find a photograph of a costume modeled after a stereotype of a Mexican immigrant (Because as we know every immigrant that lacks documentation is from Mexico or South and Central America).

  2. ellen says

    @ Tanya:
    > I totally agree that the idea behind these costumes is derogatory and cruel. I also agree that the terminology of calling someone an ‘illegal alien’ could sound offensive and de-humanizing.
    >However, what I don’t understand is why the problems ecountered by people coming here from {for example} Mexico are solely the problem of the United States. The implication is that America is Totally Responsible for the 1.low wages 2.poor working conditions 3. fear of returning home because of anxiety regarding job loss.The question being: which came first, the chicken or the egg as it were.
    >Please explain to me the Mexican Government’s Responsibility Here. Why do so many Mexian citizens need to come to the US in the first place? Why is the Mexican government neglecting its citizens to the Point where They Need to Immigrate to a Foreign Country and accept low wages, poor working conditions, separation from family etc.
    >You sound like a very kind compassionate person. However, why is America entirely culpable for this situation? Does the Mexican government not enter into this issue at all?
    > How about the United Nations? Are they aware of this problem? Unfortunately, there’s not enough money in the American treasury to feed and clothe the entire world population. Tax paying Americans Of All National Origins and Colors are already not receiving benefits that they too have worked hard for.
    > The average American is already taxed to the max and simply can’t continue to be taxed to pay for supporting the entire planet. Millions of Americans are out of work and suffering. Can we afford to enact laws to protect non tax-paying immigrants from Any Country when our own citizens can’t put food on the table for their own children?
    > As I’ve mentioned before on this site, I myself work 7 days a week to keep a roof over my head. I’m glad my taxes pay for Americans to have benefits, but if you throw in people from foreign countries, how can we sustain this?
    > I am totally against any form of racism and want to be a kind person. But is this really about Racism or about the strains on one country’s Already Fragile Economy? I’ll bet many black citizens {if asked} would not be amenable to supporting people from other countries either.

    >Again, where is the Mexican government’s responsibility in this affair. Are they blind to this situation? They don’t seem to be reacting in any way, shape or form to the plight of their own citizens.

  3. Tanya Author

    @Teddy: Glad to hear you are using “undocumented migrant.” I wish other media folks would pick up on that trend.
    @Ellen: There are several points here.
    1) The United States established a new system of quotas on Mexican immigration for the first time ever in 1965. Those quotas were much lower than the need for Mexican labor. As such, many Mexicans continued to come to the US, now as undocumented workers. This was not a big issue until the 1980s, when laws were passed that making working without documents a more serious infraction. The larger point here is that the US has consistently offered fewer visas than the number of workers the economy actually needs, thereby creating a problem of undocumented migration. Mistreating these workers is not a humane solution to this long-standing and deep-rooted problem (not that that was your suggestion).

    2. About half of all undocumented hail from Mexico – the other half come mostly from nine other countries. 80 percent of all undocumented workers come from just ten countries. These are all countries that the US has been involved with militarily, countries with which we have strong trade relations, and countries where US corporations invest money. The point here is that migrants – documented and undocumented – come to the US because of strong ties, not because they are poor. Moreover, we (Americans) benefit from these relationships. We are able to purchase inexpensive goods at Walmart because of our trade relations with the same countries that send us migrants.

    I won’t go on too long, but, I will point out that the Mexican government is heavily involved in the issue of out-migration, in many, many ways. At the same time, Mexico has come to depend on remittances – money sent back by migrants. As one in ten Mexicans is in the US, it is not in their interest to bring all of them back. It is also not in the interest of the US to send all of the Mexicans back. Undocumented workers are concentrated in certain industries, and there would be major issues if they were all to leave.

    It is not a simple question of “Mexicans” versus “Americans.” These two categories of people are not separate, in many, many ways.

  4. ellen says

    Tanya Said: ‘As one in ten Mexicans is in the US, it is not in their interest to bring all of them back. It is also not in the interest of the US to send all of the Mexicans back. Undocumented workers are concentrated in certain industries, and there would be major issues if they were all to leave.’
    Thank you very much for responding
    Tanya. I am going to do some reading about this. I don’t understand the true relationship between Mexico and America, but this is a start. Thanks for the great post. 🙂

  5. Mike

    alien |ˈālyən; ˈālēən|
    belonging to a foreign country or nation.
    • unfamiliar and disturbing or distasteful : bossing anyone around was alien to him | they found the world of adult education a little alien.
    • [ attrib. ] relating to or denoting beings supposedly from other worlds; extraterrestrial : an alien spacecraft.
    • (of a plant or animal species) introduced from another country and later naturalized.
    a foreigner, esp. one who is not a naturalized citizen of the country where they are living : an illegal alien.
    • a hypothetical or fictional being from another world.
    • a plant or animal species originally introduced from another country and later naturalized.

    I’m personally a little sick and tired of people wanting to rewrite the English language due to their own personal ignorance. If you find this particular word offensive then it’s because of your own personal biases. I work with illegal aliens on a daily basis. They’re very nice and hardworking people, but it doesn’t excuse the fact that they’re hear illegally. The only reason why they’re need in the US is because of the state of our welfare system and the enormous number of lazy Americans that are abusing the welfare system instead of contributing to society by working for a living.

  6. Tanya Author

    @Mike: You have pinpointed an important issue: In many cases, undocumented workers accept jobs that citizens won’t, as citizens have access to a basic safety net.

    The safety net that citizens have access to is remarkably little. Welfare payments are a couple of hundred dollars a month, and are cut off after five years in most cases. In addition, they are only available to families with children – the vast majority of welfare recipients are children and women.

    It is remarkable that anyone would prefer welfare payments of $200 a month to employment. The fact is that it is not only welfare payments that make certain jobs unattractive to citizens – it is also the distance they may have to travel, the lack of affordable childcare and health insurance, and the possibility of family members helping them out. A single mother of two in Chicago, for example, may prefer to live with her mother and accept welfare payments to traveling two hours on a bus each morning and night to work in a meat processing plant, earning $9.00 an hour.

    An undocumented worker may have no better choice, in part because of lack of access to welfare payments, but also the lack of a family network of support.

    The question is, I think, do we blame “lazy Americans” for their unwillingness to uproot themselves from their communities to look for work? Or, do we blame the companies for paying so little and setting up shop in locations where there is not a sufficient local labor force? Or, do we avoid this debate by insisting on living wages, good working conditions, and health care for all?

    As for your point about “illegal aliens,” pointing out the dictionary definition does not negate the fact that the phrase is dehumanizing and inaccurate – people cannot be “illegal.”

  7. Caylie

    @Mike: One aspect that seems to be missing is the issue of refugees. What about women who are fleeing genital mutilation or extremely abusive husbands? Some of these people come to the United States not knowing anything about how to go about becoming a documented person or that asylum is even an option for them. So is it their fault that they are undocumented? Or what about people that are in process of being documented? Technically they are undocumented but the wait to be properly documented can be a few years to ten years to who knows how many years? These are pretty good reasons I would think, not excuses.

    In response to your point about the word alien’s specific definition, the specific definition is not the only thing that should be looked at. For instance what about the connotation of a word? Over the years words have developed layers of meaning that sometimes have nothing to do with the actual definitions of those words. Also, within that dictionary blurb, calling someone an alien can also imply that you feel that they are “unfamiliar, disturbing, or distasteful,” which I think would be pretty insulting if someone told me that I was distasteful.

  8. Mom

    undocumented immigrants. Good Idea!:) I do feel there is a better way and that would be make is easier for a person to become legal…I don’t understand why it’s so hard, but I do know, and have known, many such people who are very greatful for their jobs, and their work ethics are incredible…However, for whatever reason they are here, we have to remember that there are many Americans citizens that are out of work. The “undocumented immigrants” are taking jobs for a lower pay, but for every two there may be one American citizens out of work..Most Americans have to work and get paid enough money to survive, so where is the balance? The balance would be to allow “undocumented peoples” to become legal, so that Employers would have to pay the same rate as any other American citizen would make. That’s the only way there could be any balance and fairness for the “undocumented people” and the US citizens. It would also would open up a door for the many undocumented people to get health care etc. Just a thought..:)

  9. Tanya Author

    @Caylie: Great points! Many, many “legal resident” immigrants were undocumented at one point. Most undocumented immigrants live in households with citizens. So, it is not so easy to draw the lines between “legal resident” “documented” and “citizen.”

    @Mom: I agree with you 100%. It is the laws that allow employers to abuse undocumented workers. If undocumented workers were permitted to come out of the shadows, that would limit employers’ abilities to pay them less than what they need to survive. Even better, if labor and immigration laws were reformed at the same time, we might see some real differences.


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