How Science Fiction Colors the Discussion of Immigration

As we talk about immigration – legal and illegal – there’s one word we should remove from the discussion. It’s the A Word – no not that A-hole word.  It’s the bigger, dehumanizing, word that implies “Otherhood” – people not like us; people who don’t belong here. That word is Alien. starts defining alien as a noun “often disparaging and offensive.” This is likely due to its common use in science fiction, where the word means extra-terrestrials, usually either vicious, ferocious or sadly misinformed such as Star Trek’s Klingons or Andorians (the blue people with antennae).  Even in Star Wars, where the real evil is the Empire and more Gestapo looking soldiers, aliens are generally unappealing, slimy, and more reptilian or fish like than human such as Jabba the Hutt and Neimoidians.

Of course, there are exceptions. The lovable Wookie (more shaggy and dog like faithful companion to Hans Solo), Ewoks (more koala like and sweet), and Yoda (the wise zen master of the force). Notice how the positive aliens have huggable or cute features versus the much wider variety of negative aliens with features less appealing.


Purists can argue the word alien is correct when discussing immigrants and immigration issues. Dictionary,com goes on to define Alien as “foreign” or “estranged.”  Immigrants are foreign in that they come from other nations, but they are also not foreign, in that they are like us – humans from planet Earth.  They are immigrants, emigres, migrants, evacuees and in earlier times simply settlers and homesteaders. Of all potential synonyms, aliens is the most pejorative and charged in discussing policy and legal regulations.

Consider Merriam-Webster’s definition of aliens as “strange,” “belonging or relating to another person, place, or thing,” or “differing in nature or character typically to the point of incompatibility.” By starting a policy discussion defining immigrants as “aliens,” the premise is that incoming groups are “not one of us” and likely never will be.

It’s no coincidence that immigrant groups when they first appear on our shores are frequently depicted with animal like qualities, in an attempt to illustrate them as less than  human — less like us. But, they are like us. They are human.

In a  new exhibit at New York City’s Tenement Museum, pictures show Irish immigrants from the turn of the 20th century depicted with ape-like faces.

If depictions and illustrations showed immigrants for what they are — human beings —  the more compassionate and less fearful centers of our own reptilian brains might fire up and we’d find ourselves far less willing to treat them with disrespect and disdain.

This is the reason that a picture of crying toddler is so strong in the current debate.  Babies are recognized as babies regardless of race, nationality or religious background. Just as mother dog can find compassion for a kitten, any compassionate father/mother /responsible adult in any part of the world will instinctively try to soothe rather than distress any child anywhere in the world.

So if we want to argue about immigration, let’s have at it, but let’s watch our words.

  • Let’s talk about people as people, not aliens.
  • Let’s first recognize immigrants as fellow earthlings, originally from a different part of our own world, but fellow planetary beings.
  • Let’s differentiate between families and gang members, and understand that gangs are more likely formed in detention facilities where young boys only meet other, older “lost boys.”
  • Then, let’s discuss how we can humanely proceed.

Everyone can agree, it’s not by separating babes from mothers arms — mothers who aren’t crack addicts, mothers who are looking to protect their young. It’s also not by letting everyone in willy nilly. Like all other policies, the middle road — that road somewhere in between the fringe edges — is where we need and want to be. Surely, we can find it.

Potential Little Hinge Action Steps:

  1. Watch or read the script from the recent CBS piece Under One Roof about the NYC Tenement Museum. If in New York City, visit the museum.
  2. Donate to Mighty Writers in Philadelphia, specifically the El Futuro site. This 9th Street site is dedicated to promoting literacy for young hispanic children of immigrants in the Italian Market neighborhood, so named for when Italians were the immigrant grocers of Philadelphia  in the first decade of the 20th Century. The center is currently exploring how to get Spanish-language books to young detainees at area-wide detention centers in PA and NJ.
  3. Donate to RAICES to fund legal services for parents and children at the Texas border. Funds are being used to post bail for parents to get them back with their children, as well as for legal services to represent them in immigration courts.
  4. Join a Protest on June 30, 2018. For a full list of planned and growing events and to find one near you go to’s site for Families Belong Together.
  5. Watch some old science fiction, from Aliens the movie to Star Trek, Star War or even H.G. Wells The War of The Worlds. Compare and contrast First Contact in Star Wars where Vulcans first come to Earth against H.G. Wells War of the Worlds where Martians invade. Discuss with your family, friends and kids how these depictions potentially influence people’s perceptions about immigration today, or how the word “alien” may color the debate.

Photo Credits: Header – Javier-Rodriguez, Pixabay, Image #18285450; Body image – Comfeak, Pixabay, Image #3014638