Immigrant advocates are urging retailers to pull a Halloween costume depicting a space creature in orange prison garb emblazoned with the words "illegal alien," while a group that supports strict immigration laws says such a move impinges on freedom of speech.
Beyond the holiday uproar, the dispute highlights the controversial nature of the phrase illegal alien — still the government's official term for those in the country without a visa, though many national politicians and media increasingly avoid using it.
Since Friday, when the Coalition for Humane Immigration Rights in Los Angeles first raised the issue, companies including Target, Walgreens and eBay have removed the costume from their inventory. Still, many local retailers continue to stock the costume that also comes with a "green" card — which technically makes the alien legal.
At costume stores in Miami, the responses have been mixed.
Don King, whose mother immigrated from Cuba, bought pirate and Homer Simpson costumes Tuesday at Halloween USA in midtown Miami, where the costume is on sale but has attracted few customers. "It's a joke," King said. "I really don't think much of it."
A few miles away in the Little Havana neighborhood, workers at a popular costume store said it was not something they would carry because it was discriminatory. They do stock a human taco costume, replete with a Mariachi hat.
Perpetuating a stereotype?
Cashier Carmen Torres, who recalled facing discrimination after arriving from Cuba as a young girl in the 1960s, said the costume was tasteless. "They haven't done anything bad. you can punish those who are criminals, but not people who are trying to, trying to work," Torres said.
Target has said it sold the costume online only and that it was posted by accident because it did not meet the company's standards. eBay said it asked sellers to remove the costume because it "does not allow items that promote or glorify hatred, violence, racial, sexual, or religious intolerance, or promote organizations with such views."
Jorge-Mario Cabrera, a spokesman for the immigrant coalition, said the costume "perpetuates this idea we have about undocumented immigrants as alien foreigners, strangers, scary."
Cabrera said he knew the costume could be taken as a play on words but the jumpsuit was too close to what many immigrants must wear in detention centers, "where they can spend months at a time, and where there is a lot of suffering."
"That the creature was holding a green card was a stab at a (broader) community," he said, because it suggests even with a legal document, immigrants are still scary criminals.
But William Gheen, head of the North Carolina-based political action committee Americans for Legal Immigration, said efforts to get stores not to sell the costume amounted to an attack on freedom of speech. He urged Americans to buy the costumes in protest.
"I looked at the costume and thought it was kind of funny. The only thing that wasn't funny was how many illegal immigrants are in this country," said Gheen, who has given speeches suggesting Latin Americans are bringing an epidemic of tuberculosis to the U.S., despite government figures showing the illness is at an all-time low.
Gheen said he didn't understand why people would have a problem with words used in federal law.
"This is a battle over psycholinguistics," he said, referring to the study of the relationship between language and the psychology or behavior of those who use it. "Nobody is supposed to be able to use the words 'illegal aliens' ... except in the government literature."
There's a big difference between how words are used officially and what people say in popular language, said Charleton McIlwain, professor of race and media at New York University.
"When people (informally) talk about immigrants, the term aliens seems to almost exclusively get used for Mexicans or other Latin Americans. We don't talk about Canadian aliens," he said, adding that the prison jumpsuit creates an association with more serious crimes like drug dealing, rape and murder.
Many major media organizations, including The Associated Press, no longer use the term "Illegal Alien" unless quoting an individual or official statute.
During the 2008 election, presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain used the phrase "illegal immigrants."
The illegal alien prisoner costume is not the only one out there. Another illegal alien mask recently on the market sported a baseball cap and a black mustache. Rich Zagone, whose company produced the mask as a joke to tweak people he calls "xenophobes," has pulled the product since the controversy began.
If he does sell it again next year, he says he'll have the words "Xenophobe's nightmare" stitched to the cap.
But Zagone added: "More than likely we will not sell it next year as we have learned that rubber masks do not make a good medium for social commentary."